When life mimics opera
The Island City Opera, now in its third season, brought an accomplished production to Alameda last Sunday, January 22, held at the imposing Elks Lodge Ballroom, where oak thrones and red velvets and elk horns create a space that encourages the suspension of disbelief. And that was perfect for Don Pasquale, a comic opera tossed off by Gaetano Donizetti in just 11 days in 1842 but considered to be at the top of the buffa tradition. Based loosely on stock characters from the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte, this wily production combined lovely music with low humor for a biting portrait of humanity.
Propelling their success were three strengths. Maestro Philip Kuttner led a reduced orchestra with feeling and precision, and those excellent musicians filled the hall with bright displays and atmospheric effects. Building on their sturdy themes, bass Bojan Knezevic and baritone Igor Vieira led a cast that clowned with vigor while delivering arresting singing. And thirdly, the seamless stage direction by Erin Neff kept the action glib and giddy.
After a burst from the orchestra, cellist Gabriel Beistline delivered a theme so yearning we knew the stage was ripe for comedy. Knezevic staggered onstage as Don Pasquale and fell into a recliner chair, then pointed a TV remote over the audience and clicked it throughout the overture, treating us to one exaggerated expression after another, then rocked back with his mouth open, snoring loudly as the orchestra moved into a gallop.
When he “woke” and called for the servants, his voice was deep, rich and assured, one of those rare basses that can deliver resonance without sacrificing agility. Veira entered with his own pure notes and suave gestures, and it became clear that we were in the presence of two pros of the stage who could play at being scoundrels even as their voices enchanted.
Sergio Gonzalez was Ernesto, the impetuous and lovesick nephew of the Don. Unlike many tenors who power their way into the upper register, his tender notes were the real thing, and many an Italian signora or nonna would have shed a tear at his effortless high notes. Ordered not to marry his beloved Norina, he is determined to kill himself, but Vieira, as Dr. Malatesta, hatches a plot to save him.
And as for Norina, soprano Eileen Meredith, whose energy helped to create this opera company, delivered smooth runs and believable acting as a young vixen who pretends to be in love with the Don. It may have taken an arched eyebrow, a beckoning finger, and a solid smack to the Don’s face to outwit him and marry her Ernesto, but it was her softer notes that were so compelling.
Rounding out the cast, Michael Belle was the Notary, and led an exemplary chorus, and besides being accomplished singers (and some have sung with the SF Opera Chorus) these were astute actors, playing the comic bits to the hilt.
But even as the cast romped and cried and romped some more, it became apparent that Donizetti’s view of a woman’s power was probably dated even in 1842. It was especially dated coming one day after worldwide women’s marches demonstrated the real power of sisterhood.
Italian audiences would have likely seen in this comedy the timelessness of stereotypes. And perhaps, like our sisters, they would also view our new President as just another skirt-chasing old Don Pasquale… but not as funny!
Don Pasquale is scheduled for two more shows: Friday, January 27, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday Matinee, January 29, at 2:00 p.m., both at the Alameda Elks Lodge Ballroom, 2255 Santa Clara Avenue, Alameda, CA. For tickets contact the box office at 510-263-8060.
Photo top of Eileen Meredith and Sergio Gonzales, below of Igor Viera and Bojan Knezevic; both photos by Sarah Sophia Pun.