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Virginia Opera transports "Don Pasquale" from the hills of Italy to the streets of Brooklyn.

Yo, Pasquale!


It's a classic Italian opera buffa, or comic opera plot — a doddering old man with lots of money decides to get married.

He picks a much younger woman who is considered sweet and virtuous. Once the "I do's" are said, though, she turns his house upside down, starts spending his fortune and makes his life generally miserable.

In the end, he finds out it was all a trick to teach him a lesson; the girl turns out to be his nephew's fiancee; and the old man decides to leave love and marriage (as well as his money) to the younger generation.

Gaetano Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" has delighted opera audiences since its 1843 premiere in Paris. Its tuneful score is full of wit and humor, while its story has invited the onstage shenanigans of performers such as Beverly Sills, Roberta Peters and Salvatore Baccaloni.

But when the Virginia Opera presents its new production this week at the Carpenter Center, audiences will be in for another surprise: Director-designer John Pascoe has moved the setting out of 19th-century Italy and into early-20th-century Brooklyn.

Is this an example of the current rage for opera productions that seem to be more about the director's concept than what the composer and librettist intended?

Pascoe, who is making his debut with the company, answers firmly in the negative. This, he says, will not be some arbitrary vision of Donizetti's opera, but a serious attempt to stage it so that we will be able to laugh at characters and situations that are out of our range of experience.

For Pascoe, there has always been a "Pasquale problem" — despite its beautiful music, he has never seen a production that satisfied him. This has to do with the main character. Pascoe believes that modern audiences may find themselves in sympathy with the old man and see the young lovers as scheming and manipulative. The result is a sour taste to the happy ending.

Pascoe has gone back to a careful reading of the text to try to solve this problem for a modern audience. His solution has been to portray the schemers as favorably as possible and Pasquale as someone who deserves the trick played on him.

He has paid particular attention to "the slap." This is the moment in the final act when the newlyweds are arguing and Norina slaps Pasquale. In a traditional production, audiences may feel sorry for the old man at this point and see Norina as a calculating shrew.

"I won't tell you how I'm staging it," Pascoe says, "but the audience will laugh."

For conductor Dan Saunders, the text is also a starting place — in this case the musical text.

Saunders, who led the company's "West Side Story" last fall, sees this work as a different type of challenge. In "Don Pasquale," he aims to maintain a classical sound, yet give the singers leeway so that the music comes to life.

Saunders has much experience working with singers, as an accompanist and as a conductor. He speaks of the need to "read between the lines." This may mean a slight pause in one place, a slowing down in another, perhaps extra time for a breath. Some of this is dictated by the singer's needs and some by the Donizetti style. Little of it is on the printed page, so it is up to the conductor to guide the singers and players.

Rod Nelman is one of those singers. The bass, who came close to stealing the show as Leporello in the company's "Don Giovanni," will be back singing Pasquale, who is about 70 years old.

"It's a challenge for me to portray someone who's much older than me," Nelman says. "I spend a lot of time watching people walk, sit and get up." Vocally, the buffo style also poses obstacles. Nelman says there are moments of "patter" when music and words are whizzing by so fast that it is difficult not to lapse into barking the music.

Nelman says he has no problems with Pascoe's changes in staging. In fact, change has been part of opera production from the beginning.

When Donizetti wrote "Don Pasquale" (supposedly in 11 days), composers often adapted, reused, cut and rearranged music as the situation warranted. Some music in "Pasquale" was recycled from earlier, failed works, and the Paris audience, if they knew, obviously didn't mind.

They also didn't care that no librettist was listed. Giovanni Ruffini, who wrote the text for the opera, argued so much with Donizetti that he asked that his name be removed from the program.

The opera was a huge success and remained the composer's most popular work well into the 20th century. So Pascoe and company's vision of "Don Pasquale" in Brooklyn may be something that Donizetti himself would have understood and approved.

— Landmark News Service

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