SF Opera’s ‘Don Pasquale’ an uproarious delight

There’s no fool like an old fool, and few old fools endure comic flimflammery quite like the aging title character in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” which has been revived after 32 years in director Laurent Pelly’s entertaining, well-cast production at San Francisco Opera.

The co-production with Santa Fe Opera and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, which opened at the Opera House Wednesday, updates the setting to 1950s Rome and includes a revolving, sometimes upside-down house with slanted doors and windows, providing a metaphorical counterbalance to the impression the title character has that he is living “la dolce vita.”

Played by bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro, Don Pasquale is a well-heeled 70-year-old bachelor upset with his nephew Ernesto’s refusal to wed a woman of his choosing. Bent on preventing Ernesto from inheriting his wealth, Don Pasquale himself decides to marry his friend Dr. Malatesta’s sister.

In reality, the woman is Ernesto’s beloved Norina, and Pasquale falls hard for the plot Malatesta and the beguiling Norina hatch to teach him a lesson.

Muraro is a pure joy as the clueless yet sympathetic Don Pasquale, capturing the character’s essence with robust voice and tastefully farcical demeanor, particularly in Act 1’s touching rendition of the aria “Bella siccome un angelo” or puckishly buoyant “Ah, un foco insolito.”

As Ernesto, tenor Lawrence Brownlee makes a splendid impression in his SFO debut. An excellent lyrical tenor in the finest tradition of bel canto singing, his chemistry with the other principals was palpable opening night. After the hauntingly beautiful long horn prelude of Act 2, he soared majestically in Ernesto’s signature aria “Cerchero lontana terra.”

In the only female role, soprano Heidi Stober was far from outnumbered by the gentlemen. Her clear, honeyed, weighty voice sounded great as Norina transformed from demure single gal to alpha bride (wearing a Pelly-designed strapless black-and-tangerine cocktail dress) bossing around the hapless Don Pasquale.

Baritone Lucas Meachem was a sturdy, rich-voiced Dr. Malatesta, busily orchestrating the plot to foil Don Pasquale and humorously expressing devilish delight in its progress and success.

Ian Robertson’s chorus helped set the amusing tone as Don Pasquale’s help and neighbors, while conductor Giuseppe Finzi drew stylish, colorful playing from the orchestra.

Don Pasquale
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 2 p.m. Oct. 2, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 4, Oct. 7, Oct. 12 and Oct. 15
Tickets: $26 to $417
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

James Ambroff-Tahan

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