Don Pasquale: Opera in the Heights Does Right by This Breezy Comic Masterpiece

The set-up: Beguiling is the right word to describe Gaetano Donizetti's sixty-ninth opera, the sparkling buffa comedy Don Pasquale (1843), a smash hit ever since its Paris premiere. You could also use that same word to describe the sprightly production from Opera in the Heights. Others come to mind: delightful, spry, funny, and beautifully sung.

The execution: Using the time-tested story of an old curmudgeonly bachelor looking for a much younger wife, Donizetti, heralded throughout Europe as heir to Rossini after such successes as Anna Bolena, L'elisir d'amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, and La Fille du Régiment, knocked everyone's socks off with this breezy, broad comedy and turned out a masterpiece. He claimed to have written the work in 11 days - no slouch when inspired, he penned the last act of La Favorita, an earlier Paris hit, in four hours - but the opera displays not one note of haste.

Warm and caressing as a sea wind off the Mediterranean, the opera never flags or loses its glittery inventiveness. From the marvelously bouncy overture to the showstopping moral, sung in a tour de force cabaletta from Norina, the object of Pasquale's misguided lust, the opera continually smiles. Even when the silly comedy goes dark, when Norina slaps the old fool after their sham marriage, it's only for a moment. It's a sober moment, and Donizetti stops the music for an instant, allowing us to glimpse Pasquale's real heartbreak and Norina's realization that the joke may have gone too far, but in a quick reversal of gears, Donizetti pulls us back into the comedy with a lilting waltz, one of the best tunes he ever wrote, as Norina skips out of the house for a rendezvous, calling Pasquale "little grandpa." We might be in commedia dell'arte land with stock situations and characters, but Donizetti supplies a musical truth that is universal, extremely energetic, and amazingly hummable.

Even with its chorus of chatty servants who appear briefly only at the end of Act II and as accompaniment to the garden rendezvous in Act III, this is an intimate work, all but a marvelous quartet: blustery bass Pasquale (Stefano de Peppo), sassy soprano Norina (Julia Engel), ardent tenor Ernesto (Eric Bowden), and wily baritone Dr. Malatesta (Wesley Landry). The opera flows from aria to duet, to trio, to ensemble numbers, mixing and matching as it goes in perfect harmony with the story.

Under Keturah Stickann's inventive direction, the young cast romps wondrously. Even the set changes are handled with wit and charm. When we move from Pasquale's house to Norina's, gloved hands appear between the screens that form a second-floor wall, pick them up, and deftly replace them farther upstage, revealing Norina at her vanity, ready to go. The garden scene transformation is just as neatly accomplished, as the chorus in slow motion adds shrubs and trellises into Pasquale's house, all lovingly timed for Ernesto's entrance serenade, the famous "Com'è gentil" ("How lovely is the night in mid-April"). Stickann keeps everything elegant yet funny, without going overboard on the low comedy bits.

De Peppo is a somewhat too trim, too young Pasquale, but he growls and blusters magnificently, with impeccable diction, especially in Donizetti's tongue-twisting patter songs. Pasquale is a deluded old fool, but de Peppo gives him heart. Bowden is appropriately moon-faced as moony Ernesto, pining away for Norina in his self-pitying farewell, "Povero Ernesto!" ("Poor Ernesto"). [You may have wondered where Nino Rota got his idea for that plaintive trumpet in his Godfather score; Donizetti got there first.] Ernesto's arias lie high up in the scale, suitable for youthful ardor, and Bowden's clear and clean tenor sails up and away with fluid plangency. Landry is more down-to-earth as mischievous Malatesta, who sets the plot in motion by tricking Pasquale into the fake marriage. He, too, is young, but youth works in his favor with his ringing baritone and easy stage manner. These three are all very good artists, but the revelation is Ms. Engel as a gloriously pert Norina, a gal who knows what she wants and how to get it. Not only a stunner visually - she wows in Dena Scheh's wispy green empire dress - but she's a radiant coloratura, bounding acrobatically across Donizetti's jungle gym vocal line with purity of tone and velvet-rich accents. Acting the charmer, she's as complete a package as Norina as we're likely to see and hear any time soon.

Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo is so in sympathy with Donizetti that he bounces along with the score, eliciting some of the clearest, most robust playing from the OH orchestra in many a season.

The verdict: Satisfying comedies in opera are rare birds, but Don Pasquale flies as high as they come. Under the sure hands at Opera in the Heights, Donizetti's masterpiece soars.

Donizetti's comic gem plays November 16, 17 (matinee), 21, 22, 23, and 24 (matinee) at Opera in the Heights' Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd. The ruby cast, which features Katie Dixon (Norina) and Octavio Moreno (Malatesta), sings November 16, 22, and 24 (matinee). Purchase tickets online at operaintheheights.org or call 713-861-5303. $32-$59.

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