Superb cast serves up a delightful “Don Pasquale” at Palm Beach Opera

By Lawrence Budmen

Janai Brugger with Carlo Lepore (left) and Lucas Meacham in Palm Beach Opera  production of "Don Pasquale."

Janai Brugger with Carlo Lepore (left) and Lucas Meacham in Palm Beach Opera’s production of “Don Pasquale.”

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale is one of the most enchanting of Italian comic operas, combining an endless profusion of bel canto melodies with a witty libretto and even a touch of wisdom regarding the romantic fantasies of an aging bachelor. When staged and played with style and fine vocalism, this delightful confection can be an utter delight.

Palm Beach Opera’s production, which opened at the Kravis Center on Friday night, is that and more.

The tale of an old, plump bachelor’s plan to marry a young woman and disinherit his rebellious nephew Ernesto is etched with lively music that combines the mirth of Rossini’s comedies with Donizetti’s own genius for memorable song. Don Pasquale is ultimately thwarted by the kindly Dr. Malatesta who arranges a faux marriage to Norina, actually Ernesto’s beloved. She turns Pasquale’s life and household upside down. Ultimately the lovers are united and Pasquale learns a lesson about his own delusions.

Donizetti’s score requires four exceptional voices in the leading roles and the PBO staging delivers the goods. In the title role, Carlo Lepore pranced around the staged like a musical comedy veteran. He imbued the elderly would-be dandy with appropriately pompous aspirations of grandeur. Lepore’s medium-size buffo voice is highly flexible, the low bass notes solid and firm, and he can toss off rapid patter with panache.

Lucas Meachem’s fine baritone has grown in size and resonance since his Papageno in The Magic Flute at PBO a decade ago. Cutting a dignified and cunning figure as Malatesta, Meachem sang with warmth, his sonority polished and voluminous. He easily sustained long bel canto lines and melded into the ensemble scenes convincingly. Meachem and Lepore made a real showstopper of the “Aspetta, aspetta cara sposina” duet, singing at ever-faster pace with abandon. Following tradition, the resulting ovation brought an even faster encore.

The two lovers were exceptional vocally and theatrically. With a voice both sweet and sly, Janai Brugger lit up the stage as Norina. In Fenion Lamb’s production, she is surrounded by commedia dell’ arte characters, who return at the end to celebrate the union of the happy couple. Brugger was playful with her cohorts, dancing around the set while spinning spot-on coloratura phrases. She turned convincing shrew after taking over Pasquale’s house, slapping him and ordering a new staff and furniture to update his dilapidated pad. Brugger’s soubrette voice and demeanor were an utter delight.

David Portillo was the dulcet-voiced Ernesto. Highly impressive two seasons ago in a Palm Beach Barber of Seville and recently with a recital of Spanish song in Miami, this fine lyric tenor goes from strength to strength. He brought aching sadness to a meltingly beautiful “Ma fa il destino” and phrased “Comé gentil” with grace. Portillo’s top range was free and unrestricted and he blended wonderfully in duet with Brugger.  Displaying unflagging strength and momentum throughout the three acts, Portillo is the model of a first-rate bel canto tenor.

Antonio Fogliani presided over a brisk, stylish performance with the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra displaying alertness and precision. The overture was given a concert-level reading, played with supple attention to instrumental details, and outstanding cello and horn solos. Fogliani paced the rollicking melody of the Act II quartet with a real sense of lilt. Greg Ritchey’s gossipy servants’ chorus sang their big scene with full-voiced heft.

From first curtain to last the pace never flagged in Lamb’s production, which was replete with nonstop high jinks. Allen Moyer’s picture postcard sets and costumes from Glimmerglass Opera were eye-catching. The second act finale was a particular highlight as the large new servant staff took away the old furniture and brought in new gold chairs and fixtures at  the cost of a fortune to the old codger, all the while the four principals seemingly oblivious as they were  speedily singing away.

Although Valentine’s Day has come and gone, this Don Pasquale is an enticing gift of comedic high spirits and beautiful singing, opera buffa and bel canto at its best.

Palm Beach Opera repeats Don Pasquale 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

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Sat Feb 20, 2016
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