Gaetano Donizetti composed the opera buffo Don Pasqualo in 1843, a couple years before an obscure mental illness permanently disabled him. The opera is very cruel and very funny: an old vain man is relentlessly tortured by a beautiful young woman. The plot's sadism sometimes seems to give Donizetti pause -- after the young woman slaps the old man, knocking him to the ground, the relentless pace of the comedy slacks for a moment and there is even a duet between the two that has the piercing quality of lament. But, then, the savagery starts up again and the cruelty continues. In Twelfth Night, the prudish and hypocritical puritan is driven to the verge of madness by the torments Shakespeare's characters devise for him, but, at one point, the heroine, Viola expresses some sympathy and notes that the economics of the house are dependent on Malvolio's probity. There is no similar moment of reconciliation in Don Pasqualo, a fool to begin with he remains a fool to the end, although one that has been chastened.. The relentlessness of opera's farce, its singlemindedness, suggest that the subject might be an unworthy, or difficult, topic for musical comedy. But Don Pasqualo was produced at a time when Italian composers could make an opera out of anything -- they could set law decrees and grocery lists to lissome and fluent music -- and, so, the work is surprisingly eloquent, full of cunning quartets, and adorned with some beautiful music.
Opera buffo seems to encourage inventiveness and, even, bold innovation on the part of the director and Don Pasqualo as performed by the Minnesota Opera company (October 7 -15) is crammed with imaginative "business". The show's premise is that the foolish old man, Pasqualo, is a silent movie star fallen on hard times in Hollywood during the fifties -- in this production the action is posited to take place in 1956. During the overture, and during several short intermezzi required for scene changes, silent films are projected on the curtain under the proscenium arch. These films are quite funny and chart Pasqualo's decline from movie star (implausibly playing a corpulent sheik) to leading man in awful genre films ("Tentacles", a 50's monster movie, and "Attack of the Robots" a low-budget sci-fi picture); Pasqualo tries to direct a Western called "Banditos" but ends up burning down the studio. Pasqualo hates newfangled and modern technology in films -- he is an adamant enemy of Technicolor. The opera is directed to emphasize the interplay between Pasqualo's colorless, grey mansion and the bright colors associated with his doomed passion for the young Sofronia, the girl who torments him. In various ways, Pasqualo's world brightens as the opera progresses and becomes more colorful, although his sepulchral zombie-like butler continues to serve him in pallid white face and Pasqualo, himself, is made up so that this cheeks and hair and brow are entirely grey. The plot is simple and archetypal. The old Don Pasqualo forbids the marriage of his nephew, Ernesto. Instead, he says that he will marry a young woman and breed heirs to his fortune. His physician, the smarmy and sinister Dr. Malatesta, offers to introduce him to a beautiful young virgin said to have been educated in a convent. The virgin is nothing of the sort -- she is Ernesto's girlfriend, herself a Hollywood starlet. Pasqualo is tricked into a fake marriage with the veiled and, seemingly, timid girl. As soon as the wedding contract is inked, the girl reveals herself to be a monstrous shrew. She immediately drives Pasqualo into debt with her extravagances, acquires jewels and limousines, and, then, demands the freedom to consort with her lover -- in fact, her real betrothed Ernesto. The scenes involving the marriage and Sofronia's torture of the old fool are realized with slapstick surrealism -- the girl traipses around with a fifty-foot long red train; Pasqualo is so buried in her bills and invoices that he wears them like a thick and furry coat. The girl invites other stars to the house, now decked-out like the Hearst mansion, and we see lookalikes for Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx, Elvis Presley and others cavorting like ancers in a Busby Berkeley musical. One bit of business involves key on a sort of retractable band that keeps getting plucked away from Pasqualo and, then, snaps back against his hips and ribs. The nasty Dr. Malatesta becomes increasingly uncanny as the show progresses. He wears a cape that he flaps like Dracula attempting to become airborne as a bat and does impressive magic tricks elongating parts of his body to try to snatch the key off Pasqualo (the key opens a garden gate to a place where the shrew is planning a meeting with her boyfriend.) During the wedding scene, a notary appears with tassels on his sleeves that are flipped around to great effect when the wedding contract is signed. A "patter" song involving incredibly rapid-fire delivery is so impressive that the two singers involved in this duet, break down the fourth wall, hurry up in front of the curtain and urge the audience to demand an encore from them -- this is accomplished and the show-stopping number is repeated to everyone's delight.
I thought the opera was successful in all respects. The music is fascinating and, often, quite beautiful; even at its least impressive, the numbers have a galloping propulsiveness, the so-called Rossini accelerando. The plot, which is as old as Plautus, and certainly hearkens back to the commedia dell'arte is effective if remorselessly brutal . The opera was mounted with great verve and ingenuity and I thought all of the "bits of business" required with respect to staging the action during the 1950's were well designed, meaningful, and, often, laugh-out-loud funny. The tonal character of the opera is a bit monotonous -- mostly three deep male voices bickering histrionically with a soprano screeching at them. The starlet, played by Susannah Biller, was a little shrill, at first, although this didn't hurt the show's comic effect, but later relaxed into a more full-throated and luscious-sounding voice. The show really belongs to the hapless Pasquale forever on his knees pleading for the gods to send him madness and the sinister Dr. Malateste and these singers (Craig Coclough and Andrew Wilkowske respectively) were highly accomplished throughout the production.