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Gerald Carpenter: Opera Santa Barbara Pays Its Respects to ‘Don Pasquale’

Opera Santa Barbara will close its 2012-13 season with a double helping of rapturous delight: two performances in the Granada Theatre of a new production of Don Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti.

In his darkest hour, Gaetano Donizetti wrote his brightest comedy.
In his darkest hour, Gaetano Donizetti wrote his brightest comedy.

Musical direction is provided by Francesco Milioto with stage direction by Jose Maria Condemi, and starring bass Philip Cokorinos in the title role, soprano Zulimar López-Hernández as Norina, tenor Javier Abreu as Ernesto, and baritone Michael Krzankowski as Malatesta.

“It is impossible not to like Don Pasquale,” eminent critic Louis Biancolli wrote some 56 years ago. “Few comic operas boast its spontaneity of melody, its bubbling wit and sunny moods, its fascinating imbroglio of plot and counterplot. From beginning to end, Don Pasquale is an adventure in good humor. Outside of Mozart, one finds a parallel banquet of melody and mirth only in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Verdi’s Falstaff and that other endearing comedy of Donizetti’s, L’elisir d’amore.”

Biancolli hastens then to disabuse us of any fond notion we might have that Don Pasquale was composed during a particularly sunny, robust and tranquil period of Donizetti’s life. The opposite was the case. In 1843, while at the pinnacle of his professional success, the composer was personally sunk in profound grief over the death of his beloved wife, compounded by the appearance of symptoms of a devastating cerebral-spinal affliction that would paralyze him two years later, plunge him into stark disassociation, confine him to an asylum and kill him by 1848.

“There is added irony in the fact that a composer who had written best of death and bereavement and insanity in a period of personal happiness should now write best of comic intrigue and romance with the full weight of horror upon him,” Biancolli said. “The brighter years had produced tragic operas, the darkest an immortal comedy.” (In a similar fashion, Mahler wrote Kindertotenlieder during the happiest time of his life, with both his daughters alive and in radiant good health.)

My love affair with Don Pasquale began in the mid-1960s, when I was working in Discount Records in Berkeley — and dividing my musical affections between Mahler and Tomaso Albinoni, on the one hand, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones on the other.

One of my co-workers was a young man who had devoted his life to the study and experience of Italian opera buffa. While his judgments outside his field were eccentric in the extreme — he considered The Magic Flute “a third-rate sing-spiel” — his discrimination and refinement with respect to Italian comic operas were irrefutable. One day, he told me exactly why Don Pasquale was the greatest of all operas in the genre (I wish I had written down what he said), and recommended the famous Cetra recordings of the Italian canon, which were just then being reissued by Everest. I knew when I was getting the straight stuff, so I immediately bought the Everest Cetra recording, with Sesto Bruscantini, Cesare Valletti and Alda Noni, and I have been under Don Pasquale’s spell ever since.

Don Pasquale plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, both in the Granada Theater. Ticket prices range from $28 to $188, and they are available at the Granada Theatre box office at 1214 State St., by phone at 805.899.2222 or online by clicking here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are his own.

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