Don Pasquale came along in 1843, late in Gaetano Donizetti’s career when the composer had for the most part left his comic opera focus behind in favor of dramatic stageworks. The opera remains one of the most popular of Donizetti’s 60+ operatic creations. Small wonder, because Don Pasquale is one of the very best examples we have of a work created in the opera buffa tradition.

Craig Colclough (Don Pasquale) and Andrew Wilkowske (Dr Malatesta) © Dan Norman
Craig Colclough (Don Pasquale) and Andrew Wilkowske (Dr Malatesta)
© Dan Norman

The storyline is familiar enough – even with all of the twists and turns in the narrative, it’s easy to follow the “stock” characters of commedia dell’arte – Pantalone (Pasquale), Pierrot (Ernesto), Columbina (Norina) and Scapino (Dr Malatesta). Donizetti’s music for the key characters is challenging, to say the least. In this Minnesota Opera performance, nearly everywhere the singers did an estimable job navigating the vocal gymnastics contained in the score. Several of the leading singers had sung these roles prior to the Minnesota performances – and indeed several had participated in Chuck Hudson's staging.

As Pasquale, Craig Colclough was very convincing in a role he performed with both strength and agility. His comedic timing was flawless, which worked well when interacting with the other characters on the stage. David Walton’s Ernesto was adroit, his tenor not particularly hefty but wonderfully musical, with good breath control. Walton was masterful during his softer passages, and he nailed every single one of his high notes, no small feat in this opera.

Susannah Biller, as Norina, brought great versatility to several very different personality types called for in this character, from the mousy nun to the brassy hussy to the scheming “wife” of Pasquale. While there may have been a few spots in Act 1 where her notes weren’t pitch-perfect, Biller rebounded quickly to deliver a knockout performance that went from strength to strength. In the final scene of the opera, her “La moral di tutto questo” was absolutely stupendous.

Susannah Biller (Norina) © Dan Norman
Susannah Biller (Norina)
© Dan Norman

Of the major characters, only Andrew Wilkowski as Dr Malatesta failed to be strongly convincing. He displayed good artistry, but seemed to have some trouble with intonation, particularly during the first two acts. Too many notes came close, but somehow failed to end up right where they should be. The result was some passages where we were left with a sensation of not “quite” hearing what we were expecting. Wilkowski’s singing improved in Act 3, and the patter duet with Colclough was one of the showstopping highlights of the entire opera – and partially repeated for the benefit of the appreciative audience. All of the duet and ensemble numbers were particularly well-done, helped along by perfect stage timing in addition to the artists’ musicality. I was particularly impressed with the final scenes in both Act 2 and Act 3.

As for the staging, Minnesota Opera presented the Chuck Hudson production of Don Pasquale that appeared first at Arizona Opera several years ago and has since been mounted in Cincinnati and Atlanta. In what is now a standard practice of modern productions of classic operas, the action was time-traveled to a different era – but in this case, the change wasn’t designed to make some sort of “profound statement” as in other operatic productions I’ve seen such as Faust updated to World War I-era France or Elektra taking place in an insane asylum in Nazi Germany.

Craig Colclough (Don Pasquale) © Dan Norman
Craig Colclough (Don Pasquale)
© Dan Norman

In Hudson’s frothy-fun staging, we find ourselves in 1950s Hollywood, where Pasquale is an aging silent movie star residing on Sunset Boulevard, and the rest of characters exhibit all of the glamour (and stereotypes) of that era. Even the chorus is in on the action, with its members dressed to look like pop culture stars of the period (e.g., Jackie Gleason, Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe and others) in the Act 3 choral numbers. Did everything work? In a word, yes. The staging was clever, employing some novel tricks to get through scene changes by projecting old movie footage of Pasquale in his silent movie days, which engaged the audience in good-natured fun and helped set the mood of jollity that's perfectly suited for this opera.

Strong musical support was provided by conductor Jonathan Brandani leading an orchestra that sounded properly Italianate: light and airy, with a crisp tone and just the right amount of “crash and dash” from the percussion and brass. Instrumental ensemble was very tight, and one couldn’t have asked for better synchronization with the singers.

In sum, this Minnesota Opera Don Pasquale was great all-around fun – a production with just the right amount of clever staging and slapstick humor even as it sacrificed nothing in the way of artistry and musicianship.