FWO Archives: Donizetti's Comedy 'Don Pasquale' with a Twist (2018 Festival & 2003 Production)
Updated: Aug 28
Director Chuck Hudson’s dazzling, 1950s Hollywood-inspired Don Pasquale was one of the highlights of the 2018 Festival. As we look back at this hilarious, cinematic comedy, we also wind the clock back to 2003, and director David Gately's spaghetti western production.
Donizetti's Version of "I'm Every Woman"
One of the trickiest things about the opera Don Pasquale is that there is only one female character, Norina. When we meet her, we are not introduced to a girl but to a woman; one we have heard about before meeting her and one who is specifically different from most soprano ingenue roles. She is not an ingenue at all. In fact, early in the show she is described as a young widow. She is neither innocent of the ways of men nor innocent of the ways of the world - she is a woman of some experience.
In her introductory aria we spy Norina revisiting the Fairy Tale Romance that she and all young girls are taught to believe in, and she knows from experiencing life that this is not what real love is. Perhaps she was married off to a rich old man who died, but now, we know she does not have a lot of money. Perhaps it was an arranged marriage that was more economic than personal. In our own Post-Romantic world where even Disney Princessess have more chutzpah than their Barbie Doll predecessors, we the audience meet an intelligent and educated young woman who has experienced life, and yet is not so jaded by that experience that she no longer believes in love. Norina really is in love with Ernesto.
Similar to the relationship between Rosina and Figaro in Rossini's II barbiere di Siviglia, the instructive baritones of both operas never tell their respective sopranos what to do. Instead, they actually value and support the cleverness and intelligence of their protégées. Dr. Malatesta is quite Socratic in his instruction, leading his favorite pupil to discover her own solutions to problems by thinking them out logically. In the Age of Reason, that was a man's role. He even trusts Norina to be a Creative Problem Solver - to improvise her own text and actions disguised as the sassy Sofronia, who is more of a shrew than even Shakespeare's creature.
If Norina is the Only Woman, she is therefore Every Woman. We at least have the servant-class Berta in baribere to compare with the upper-class Rosina. Donizetti only gives us the occasional female chorister with no name for comparison with Norina. On her own and from the first scene Norina must embody every woman you have met. In the 1980s many women believed they must act "bitchy" to appear strong to survive working in a man's world. But if the real Norina is in any way shrewish, then she is not in disguise as the "shrew" Sofronia, and what does that say about all women? No, Norina is written as a three-dimensional character; a woman who possesses flaws as well as talents. We may not even agree with some of her choices, especially when she resorts to physical violence. Restoring our faith in a woman who has just slapped an old man to the ground is challenging enough; restoring the comedy from that dark situation is a pivotal moment in the show.
Perhaps Norina goes too far, and she must recognize this too. Or what does that say about every woman? What would justify an intelligent young woman to slap a frustrated old man to the ground, and for us to remain on her side? For that matter, what would bring an educated man like Malatesta to cheat his friend out of money and to set up his young protégée to gain from it? Is he ONLY Machiavellian or is there something more to him, too? Over my several productions of the opera I have two SECRETS in my direction - one for Malatesta and one for Norina. No one but the artists singing those roles knows what those secrets are - and perhaps a handful of singers who have taken my Advance Acting master classes! Watching closely, perhaps you can figure them out!
-Chuck Hudson, Director
Don Pasquale's mansion
Don Pasquale is an old film star from the silent movie era as famous as the great Norma Desmond. He lives in an old mansion on Sunset Boulevard that is as devoid of color as his old black-and-white films. His ward and nephew, Ernesto, has refused an arranged marriage, proclaiming his love for Norina, a popular Hollywood starlet. Don Pasquale, outraged, decides to disinherit the boy and beget his own heirs. To do this he needs a wife, and he has called on a family friend, Dr. Malatesta, to help him find one. Malatesta, siding with Ernesto and Norina, crafts a plan to teach the headstrong Pasquale a lesson. He glowingly describes to him his beautiful and completely imaginary sister and tells him that the girl is in love with him. Before long, the old bachelor is convinced he loves the girl and expresses his desire to marry her with Technicolor enthusiasm. Furthermore, he is prepared to cut Ernesto out of his will. Unaware that Dr. Malatesta has a plot afoot; Ernesto grows bitter at the apparent betrayal by his good friend, Malatesta.
A Hollywood Soundstage
Shooting a scene from her next Hollywood movie, Norina's screen persona boasts about knowing all the tricks to win a man's love. Malatesta arrives and reveals to Norina his plans for fooling Don Pasquale: Norina is to enact the role of Malatesta's sister, wed the old bachelor in a fake ceremony and then drive him so crazy with her whims and demands that he will be eager to find a way out of the unpleasant staged marriage. Malatesta hires local stage hands to help out, but there is no time to tell Ernesto.
Don Pasquale's mansion
Realizing that he will never be able to marry Norina without his inheritance, Ernesto laments his situation as passionately as any of his uncle's silent films. When he leaves, Malatesta arrives with Don Pasquale's "bride" and introduces her to Pasquale who is outlandishly dressed in an old costume worthy of Rudolph Valentino. Without further delay, a ceremony takes place, during which Ernesto returns and is forced to witness the contract, and he is finally told what is afoot. As soon as the mock ceremony ends, Norina turns into a fiery shrew who torments Don Pasquale with her nasty short temper and extravagant ways.
Don Pasquale's mansion
Having turned Don Pasquale's mansion into a kind of Hearst Castle, Norina invites the elite of the Hollywood film world to cavort at Don Pasquale's expense. Exquisitely gowned, Norina brazenly leaves the house to attend a late-night concert, and as part of the plan, she drops a letter where Don Pasquale will find it. It is a love letter from Ernesto, inviting her to a rendezvous in the garden of the Hollywood Bowl. Don Pasquale realizes that he cannot endure the situation any longer. Furious, he calls Malatesta, who promises to fix everything.
The garden of the Hollywood Bowl
Disguised as a Hollywood crooner, Ernesto sings a love song to Norina, who responds fervently for Don Pasquale's eaves-dropping ears. Don Pasquale springs upon the conspirators, who then happily reveal their plot. Immensely relieved to discover that his marriage has been like scenes from a popular Hollywood comedy, Don Pasquale forgives everyone involved and happily gives Norina to Ernesto.
-Courtesy of Chuck Hudson
With Don Pasquale, Donizetti gives us champagne for music and so the comic style of the acting must match this excellence or it would be like mixing bubbles with beer! I had the privilege of working with a master of comedy, Marcel Marceau. At his school in Paris, Marceau had us study the various styles of comedy from the Italian Commedia dell'Arte to his own comic inspirations: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and other actors of le Cinéma Muet. It was their virtuosity, their "musicality" in style that struck Marceau. Their comic dignity represented the champagne of Comedy as opposed to the stylistic beer of Slapstick or Vaudeville. Marceau also drilled us in the details of his own comic masterpieces, working the specificity, style, and that elusive skill, Comic Timing.
Highlights of touring with Marceau came on the off-nights in a studio improvising together. He put me on stage and tossed out a theme and I would "play." He gave me specific stylistic directions: "make the same action tragic, now comic, now dork comedy, now Baroque comedy, now Melodrama..." To increase the subtlety he would say, "Now find the tragic in the comic" or "find the comic in the tragic." I learned that I could change the context or even the meaning simply by changing where and when to "take" to the audience. These silent asides would make or break the comedy and could generate cascades of laugher. I love honoring his influence by inserting flowers from his bouquet into a show now and then, so we have inserted a few into this production-riffing on Bip Commits Suicide, The Mask Maker, and The Pickpocket’s Nightmare.
We wanted to create an environment that would allow the virtuosity of comedy to work hand in hand with the virtuoso vocal work of Opera. When the design team and I settled on Sunset Boulevard as the inspiration for this production, the collaboration and creativity flowed. Having singers play Hollywood actors who are playing roles opened up a world of comic possibilities. I have always been amazed with the "theatre magic" of the costume changes during a Japanese Kabuki performance-a Samurai Warrior turns into a Fox right before your eyes, which is not only part of the fun, it is a playful way for us to portray in a theatre the special effects we expect in a movie. Like a Busby Berkeley chorus becoming a kaleidoscope of human action, even our set transforms one large element into a completely different object in another scene.
On the first day of rehearsal I presented the singers with Marceau's Comic Timing Exercise-a specific and yet simple sequence of movements that allows comedy to flourish. Armed with this technique, we got to work! Although he is no longer with us, Marceau's style and his love of style live on in those of us who worked with him directly. I am privileged to pass it along to the next generation of performers including actors, movement artists, and opera singers.
-Chuck Hudson, Stage Director
CAST AND CREATIVE
COMPOSER Gaetano Donizetti
LIBRETTIST Giovanni Ruffini
Sung in Italian.
CONDUCTOR Joe Illick
DIRECTOR Chuck Hudson
SCENIC DESIGNER Peter Nolle
COSTUME DESIGNER Kathleen Trorr
LIGHTING DESIGNER Eric Watkins
VIDEO PROJECTIONS DESIGNER Doug Provost
SOUND DESIGNER Ra Byn Taylor
MAKE UP AND WIG DESIGNER Audrey Schwartz
STAGE MANAGER Caroline Walker
ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGER Erin Joy Swank
ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGER Alex W. Seidel
CHORUS MASTER AND REPETITEUR Stephen Carey
PIANO INTERLUDES ARRANGED BY Janna Ernst
ENGLISH SUPERTITLE Arizona Opera Company
SPANISH SUPERTITLE TRANSLATION Gabriela Lomonaco
THE CAST IN ORDER OF VOCAL APPEARANCE
PASQUALE Burak Bilgili
DR. MALATESTA Andrew Wilkowske
ERNESTO Ji-Min Park
NORINA Audrey Luna*
CARLOTTO John Sauvey
MAX Dustin Curry
Featuring the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
*(Underwritten by Ms. Rosalyn G. Rosenthal)
This gallery features photos both from our 2018 production by Chuck Hudson and our 2003 production by David Gately.