2002 Don Pasquale

‘Don Pasquale’: Venetian Charmer

By Joe Banno
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 24, 2002; Page C05

While stage directors the world over labor to freshen up older operas by moving their settings forward in time, the Wolf Trap Opera Company has shifted the action of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” from 19th-century Rome back to Renaissance Venice, linking the opera clearly to its roots in commedia dell’arte.

“Don Pasquale,” performed Friday night, borrows heavily from the 500-year-old comic theater tradition’s archetypal figures: the lustful old bachelor (Pasquale), the fast-talking schemer (Dr. Malatesta) and the cunning young lovers (Norina and Ernesto). That the staging works as well as it does owes much to the cast of flexible young singers and to director Chuck Hudson’s well-gauged, highly detailed approach to physical comedy.

Unexpectedly, a singer a good half-century too young to be Pasquale walks away with the show. With a bass-baritone of some grit and carrying power, and sporting a gray fright wig and a bird’s nest of a beard, Kevin Burdette proves a natural comedian, balancing broad shtick and subtle behavioral touches with the wink-wink, nudge-nudge strain of self-parody that ripples through the production.

As Malatesta, Ryan Taylor’s mellifluous, seamlessly produced bel canto baritone is the strongest voice in the bunch. If tenor Ross Hauck, as Ernesto, hasn’t quite grown into the uppermost part of his voice, it’s nevertheless a lovely, lighter-than-air instrument. As Norina, soprano Angela Gilbert makes up for the vinegary edge in her tone with gleaming, freely produced coloratura runs. And all the singers make the most of whatever comic business the director has sent their way.

The design team has created a smart, colorful, comedy-friendly environment for the action, and conductor Dean Williamson leads his small orchestra with a real feeling for the score’s bubbling high spirits. Once again, the Barns, with its warmly immediate acoustics, proves to be Washington’s best venue for smaller-scale opera.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company