Opera Santa Barbara (OSB) has not only kept live performance strong during COVID-19, it has turned a usually reserved opera audience into a rowdy, car-horn honking crew on wheels.
On a brisk Saturday night near the Pacific at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, the world-class hometown company brought forth another breathtaking performance, this time Gaetano Donizetti’s comic opera “Don Pascuale.”
It’s said no one matches Donizetti when it comes to combining beautiful melodies and vocal pyrotechnics with laugh-out-loud comedy. And this production showed that to luscious effect.
Though Donizetti’s original opened in 1843, this version is cleverly set in 1920s Santa Barbara, and centers on the former head of Flying A Studios facing older age alone.
Pascuale’s doctor, Maltesta, who spends their first scene together making varied, continuous and hilarious chiropractic adjustments to his “decrepito” patient, arranges a marriage for him to a beautiful young woman whom he claims is his sister.
At the same time, Pascuale has just disowned his nephew and heir, Ernesto, for refusing to marry the woman Pascuale has chosen for him, instead holding out for his true love Norina.
The doctor is driving a scheme that will ultimately unite Ernesto with his heart’s desire, but not before Norina, an out-of-work starlet, gets installed and wreaks havoc in Pascuale’s house as his new bride.
In classic opera buffa tradition, all’s well in the end, but not before a lot of light-hearted deception ensues.
I can’t say enough about the strengths of the performers. The voices and stage presence of each of the four characters was big enough to satisfy as if we’d seen an ensemble production. Warmth, boldness and clarity marked each of the artists’ vocals and acting.
Andrew Potter’s bass Pascuale featured the vocal and physical stature to command the stage even though he’s often a clueless, physically deteriorating, bombastic fool. His powerful tones and flawless articulation, along with deft movement and tight navigation of the sets rendered his performance smart, intentional and enjoyable to the fullest.
Dr. Maltesta, played by baritone Efraín Solís, makes a sharp counterpoint to the massive presence of Pascuale as both his confidant, matchmaker and con artist. Our introduction to him as he cracks and ministers to the lumbering Pascuale throughout the first scene highlights his dynamism and their duets show off his vivid vocals.
The two men’s vocal fireworks culminated, in response to car-honking popular demand, an instant reprise of a crowd-wowing duet mid-performance.
Matthew Grills, tenor, plays the heartsick and insipid Ernesto, who despite constantly bemoaning some version of “No one has ever suffered so much as I!” and inadvertent playing into Maltesta’s intricate schemes, comes out on top.
The sole female in the production, soprano Jan McIntyre, imbues the opportunistic Norina with warmth and might, carrying most every scene she’s in, even in the presence of such a strong male cast.
Whether portraying a snide starlet, a demure novitiate-turned-bride, a demanding and intractable wife, or even a trueheart young lover in the end, McIntyre delights with sharp comic timing, graceful movement, and a vocal range ripe with auditory pleasures.
The choreography deserves special note. Whether in pairs, trio or quartet (or even as five on stage in one scene that includes a notary who devises Pascuale’s fake marriage contract – on a manual typewriter with old-school return pings as punctuation to the music), much was made from little.
From Norina wrapping Pascuale’s head in a fluffy feather boa and mussing it about like hair, to precision alternate leg-crossing in scenes between doctor and patient on a settee, to interweaving of three performers that puts each of them by turns in front center, most was made of understated moves and incisive execution.
Sound was still great, even when our car battery died near the end of the show, and we relied on stage speakers. Screens all around made the show enjoyable from any location, and we had enough view of music director Kostis Protopapas to remember the magic being driven from behind the scenes by live orchestra.
Though OSB had to postpone its planned run of “La Traviata” in June, watch for news about their offering of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” around that time. Based on recent history, it’s sure to be both superb and surprising.
Local arts critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a round-the-clock appreciator of the creative act.