“Bravo!” is what opera fans typically cry out when a performance hits the mark, but the Atlanta Opera’s current production of Gaetano Donizetti’s classic bel canto comedy “Don Pasquale” is just as likely to elicit cries of “Hooray for Hollywood!” The production updates the action of the work to the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the result is a fresh, colorful, lively and funny show that could easily melt the heart of even the most staunch traditionalist.
Director Chuck Hudson created his inventive staging for “Don Pasquale” for the Arizona Opera in 2014 and also directed his Hollywood-set “Don Pasquale” at the Cincinnati Opera in 2015. After the Atlanta Opera production, he’ll direct it again at the Minnesota Opera later in 2017.
In the opera, Pasquale (bass-baritone Burak Bilgili), totally decked out in black and white, is a former silent film star, but as the era of talkies and Technicolor has dawned, he’s become a star more in the Norma Desmond mold than his former Rudolph Valentino one. The Roman palazzo of the traditional Donizetti work has become a sequestered Sunset Boulevard mansion, and here Pasquale doesn’t just want to marry a younger woman; the marriage is part of a much-sought-after, elusive Hollywood comeback.
During the entr’acte orchestral moments when the curtain drops, we see black-and-white montage film clips from Pasquale’s career, the early successes and the later debacles as he tries to hold on to his youth; it’s one of the most playfully silly and charming elements of the production.
Making an impressive, if unexpected, debut on opening night in the romantic lead as Pasquale’s nephew, Ernesto, was Atlanta Opera Studio Artists program participant Argentinian tenor Santiago Ballerini. (Ji-Min Park, slated to play Ernesto, was sick on opening night, but is expected to return to the role for the remainder of the performances.) The small but mighty tenor Ballerini gave youthful vigor, energy and drama to the role, and the loveliness of his tenor voice was clear, from his Act 1 aria right through to the lilting loveliness of Act 3’s serenade (with the character disguised, in keeping with the new setting, as Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, no less).
What’s best about Hudson’s conception for the show is its consistency. Opera directors often seek to update or change the setting or time of a classic work, but many times, this only succeeds in patches. We may be delighted to see Violetta cavorting around 1930s New York in Act 1 of a reimagined “La Traviata,” but we’ll end up wondering why she dies of a 19th-century disease like consumption in Act 3. Here, the new concept is sustained across characters, settings and acts.
Though it’s a shame Donizetti’s opera doesn’t offer the Atlanta Opera’s powerful chorus more to do, it’s still fun to see the members dressed as various celebrities including Elvis Presley, Eartha Kitt, Groucho Marx and Lucille Ball, as the gossiping servants of Donizetti are changed to chattering guests at a Hollywood party.
Orchestrating the plot against Pasquale is Dr. Malatesta (Alexey Lavrov), often portrayed as a middle-aged buffoon in the commedia dell’arte style, but here depicted as a slick, young Hollywood con man. Malatesta employs the help of Norina (Georgia Jarman), here a seductive Hollywood starlet, whom he disguises as his virginal sister straight from a convent, to marry Pasquale.
Pasquale himself, in keeping with his character, lives in a black-and-white world; when the opera opens, he and his mansion are monochromatic, but the stage begins to get splashes of color as his hope returns. It’s a visual device that helps give surprising pathos to later developments, such as Norina’s cruel treatment of Pasquale in Act 2 and Pasquale’s gloomy, almost suicidal realization that his marriage could never work in Act 3. Touches of physical comedy, which are often hard to pull off in opera because the emphasis is placed so resolutely on the sound world, are surprisingly well-executed and effective here.
I was less a fan of a planned encore for Dr. Malatesta and Don Pasquale in Act 3, which seemed more vaudeville than Hollywood with its ironic showboating and spotlights swooping over the drop-curtain. Planning for, and, in the supertitles, deliberately eliciting audience enthusiasm for, an encore seems vaguely like cheating. Still, it’s hard to complain when the result was hearing the playful patter of the nicely executed duet again, though in my estimation, the true highlight of the evening was the finale of Act 2, an ensemble featuring all four of the strong leads at the height of the dramatic confusion in a burst of colorful melody.
Maestro Joseph Colaneri, the current music director of the Glimmerglass Opera Festival, conducts, eliciting especially fine and precise yet playful sounds from the score’s many modes: lush passages, light arrangements or even solo instrumentation. The shift in time and place would be thoroughly irksome if the classical bones weren’t strongly intact, and this Colaneri ensures masterfully.
In the show, Pasquale never quite manages his big comeback, but in Hollywood terms, “Don Pasquale” is nonetheless a surefire hit.
The Atlanta Opera’s “Don Pasquale”
7:30 p.m. March 28; 8 p.m. March 31; 3 p.m. April 2. $35-$131. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org.
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