Italian comic opera, that profoundly silly, painfully beautiful, enduringly endearing repertory that attained its zenith early in the 19th century, has had a good month hereabouts: Rossini’s “The Turk in Italy” given a stylish if revisionist staging by the Long Beach Opera, and now the Music Center Opera’s altogether joyous production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale.” Three performances remain (March 26, 29, April 1) — three chances to convince any remaining nonbelievers of opera’s power to generate a magical couple of hours in its presence.
It’s an amazing work: short (just two hours of music) and economical (four characters, plus two lines for a notary and a small chorus). There are few formal arias; most of the music zooms ahead as a tightly woven ensemble.
One piece in particular, a patter duet for silly old Pasquale and the wily Doctor Malatesta, leaves audiences limp with helpless laughter; the ensuing scene, a serenade for lovelorn Ernesto followed by a love duet in close and luscious harmony, could very well be the music played just the other side of heaven’s gate.
Everything works. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s exquisite set — a sun-baked Italian village within its own proscenium — reduces the Music Center’s overlarge stage to the proper size. Stephen Lawless’ restaging of Ponnelle’s original Royal Opera production moves artfully and gracefully; there are no gimmicks, only the comic spirit at its most vibrant.
Italian baritone Claudio Desderi is the Pasquale, his great rubbery countenance in constant reaction to the insanity around him, his resonant bass-baritone marvelously insinuating and never forced, his delivery of the text (even at Mach 4) a model of elegant diction.
Rodney Gilfry’s Malatesta is the perfect foil; Greg Fedderly’s Ernesto runs into an occasional brief squall above the staff but is thoroughly likable and musicianly. Italian conductor Evelino Pido maintains the balances in the tricky ensemble writing — no small achievement in this transparent music — and keeps things moving swiftly and elegantly.
And there is the Norina, a sensationally gifted Albanian soprano by the name of Inva Mula (discovered in a vocal competition run by Placido Domingo), in her American debut. A handsome woman, wonderful to watch with what seems a natural comedic gift, her vocal gifts are no less impressive. They include that rare commodity, a genuine trill; the voice is lustrous, impeccably focused, pure and purely beautiful.
The Music Center Opera has a fine record in developing young singers and sending them into orbit (Gilfry and Fedderly among them) but no particular record for presenting the debuts of major world-class talent. This time they scored big.