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Endless Love

Don Pasquale is an evergreen comic opera filled with freshness

Ah, love. Where would opera be without it? On some level, every opera is a love story. Most end unhappily, which should give pause to those celebrating St. Valentine's Day. The lovers are always mismatched; and even in the comedies, while no one dies, people who want true love rarely get it. Instead, they get comeuppance, and their noses tweaked.

When Gaetano Donizetti wrote his delectable 1843 opera buffa Don Pasquale, he was Europe's most famous stage composer, having already written the international smash hits L'Elisir d'Amore and Lucia di Lammermoor. By the time of Pasquale, Donizetti had written some 70 operas and penned this last comic masterpiece in either 11 days or, by some accounts, a lazy two weeks. While his luck lasted, he was Rossini's heir and king of the world. But five years after writing Pasquale, at 50, Donizetti died from untreated syphilis.

Filled with youthful sunshine and ardent hopefulness, Pasquale is the last of the great comic operas so beholden to Rossini for their evergreen freshness and sparkle. It still holds up today, thanks to Donizetti's lyricism and Giovanni Ruffini's libretto.

It's easy to see why young and old fall for Norina 
(Jennifer Welch-Babidge, right, with John Del Carlo as 
Don Pasquale).
Brett Coomer/HGO
It's easy to see why young and old fall for Norina (Jennifer Welch-Babidge, right, with John Del Carlo as Don Pasquale).

Details

Don Pasquale: Through February 4
Manon Lescaut: Through February 11
Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-OPERA.

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As the story goes, rich old geezer Pasquale decides to spite his heir/nephew Ernesto, who's fallen in love with impoverished Norina. His solution: to marry, disinheriting Ernesto. Pasquale's best friend, Dr. Malatesta, thinks Pasquale's a fool and needs to be taught a lesson, so he hatches a plot with Ernesto to turn the tables on the old clown. Norina is disguised as a sheltered, virginal good girl, and she's set up with Pasquale in a sham marriage; no sooner are the vows taken than Norina turns into a feminist termagant, bossing the old don around, spending money wastefully and generally driving him crazy. Dr. Malatesta is happy to get his friend Pasquale out of this mess of a marriage -- as long as he finally agrees not to get in Ernesto and Norina's way. At the finale, they all sing that old men shouldn't marry young brides, unless they desire "troubles and cares without end."

Bass-baritone John Del Carlo makes a sputtering, exasperated Pasquale. Almost giddy at meeting his prospective gal-toy, he sports a patently bad toupee, does a little dance and, like Verdi's old geezer counterpart, Falstaff, goes a-wooing. As conniving Dr. Malatesta, baritone Brian Leerhuber negotiates the difficult passages with the finesse of an Olympic downhill skier; along with Del Carlo, he stops the show in the tongue-twisting patter duet "Cheti, cheti." As Norina, soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge is pert and sassy, and it's easy to see why both young and old fall hard for her. And tenor Norman Reinhardt's clear, bright sound is just what the role of lovesick Ernesto needs. His nocturnal serenade "Comé gentile" is lyric tenderness personified.

A minor flaw in the production is that director James Robinson, who should know better, can't quite make up his mind what to do with this comedy. Instead, he compromises between frantic and realistic, playing down the heartache that lies just beneath the surface of Donizetti's autumnal comedy. Maestro Patrick Summers, though, keeps the music sparkling.

Diva Alert!

HGO should install seat belts in the Wortham for Manon Lescaut, because Finnish operatic superstar Karita Mattila will blow you away. Since her last appearance here in 1991, Mattila has become a reigning international diva, putting her individual stamp on every role she assays, whether it be in Salome, Fidelio, Lohengrin, Elektra, Don Carlos, Jenufa or Arabella.Everything you've heard about her legendary performing is true. Handsome and charismatic, she possesses a lush, radiant voice that streams out of her effortlessly. A consummate actor, she gives off sparks, and you can't take your eyes off her. She's a force of nature.

If only Puccini's 1893 opera did her justice. Manon Lescaut was a make-or-break proposition for the struggling composer. Abbé Prevost's scandalous novel from 1731 had recently become an international smash opera from Jules Massenet, but that didn't stop Puccini, who recognized a good, juicy story when he heard one. Six librettists sweated over this mess of shabby construction, and while Puccini poured melodramatic passion into the music, the chunky libretto can't save the doomed courtesan.

Manon is perhaps the least sympathetic of all opera heroines. Vain, spoiled and selfish, she's a bitch who's never met a strand of pearls she didn't like. After running away with her lover, the impoverished des Grieux, she abandons him, taking up a seductive life of idle luxury with a rich man. Her most momentous choice is where to put her beauty spot -- she ends up applying two. We never warm up to her, and by the time she's shipped off to Louisiana, arrested and disgraced on trumped-up charges, we just don't care.

The story meanders, and past events are explained instead of shown. This opera is unnecessarily padded and not of a whole. Musically, Puccini can't pull it together as he later would in the classics La Bohème, Madame Butterfly and Tosca. Italy, though, was eager to have a successor to Verdi, and Manon Lescaut, for all its faults, filled the bill. Puccini became Italy's new Mr. Opera.

The production is lavish and realistic, except for Act II, which depicts Manon's luxurious hedonism. Here, the upper-crust characters are played with grotesque caricature and fey eroticism in exaggerated wigs and pasty white faces. Manon's rich lover, de Ravoir (bass-baritone Dale Travis), is slathered under a fop's cartoony old-age makeup. He should be a trifle sexy to seduce her; otherwise, she's even more shallow than she appears.

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