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There’s no fool like an old fool, so the saying goes, and there’s no more endearing old fool than the title character of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Though plagued by snow-related cancellations of their two scheduled performances and heaven only knows how many other production tribulations, Asheville Lyric Opera mounted a stellar matinee performance for an appreciative, weather-weary audience. Benjamin Smith, currently the Resident Assistant Director at Seattle Opera, was Director for this production. David Craig Starkey is General and Artistic Director of the Asheville Lyric Opera and Michael Porter is the Assistant Music Director and Chorus Director. The Company is grateful to its sponsors — season sponsor Grand Bohemian Hotel, Asheville; production sponsors Asheville Savings Bank and Keller Williams; and media sponsors Asheville Citizen-Times, WCQS, Yellowbook, WNC Magazine, Rapid River, Asheville Tribune, and Asheville Daily Planet.
Don Pasquale ranks as one of the great exemplars of Italian comic opera. Although neither as long nor as convoluted as Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, it sustains very successfully its own comic story of Pasquale’s search for love with a young bride and his quick disillusionment with his new state of affairs. It’s an old story, of course, but one told in sympathy with the longings of its main character. When the youngsters Ernesto and Norina eventually gain permission to marry, one can’t help feeling their triumph over the old man to be bittersweet.
This was the right opera for this company — with a small cast, chamber-sized pit orchestra (beautifully conducted by Robert Hart Baker) and relatively simple sets, the production was perfectly at home in the intimate space of the Diana Wortham Theatre. The projected English supertitles and the close proximity of the audience to the stage ensured that none of the comedy was lost, and from the first scene it was a hoot. The drama was kept lively by its blocking and generous use of the stage. The balance between singers and orchestra was consistently good, as was the ensemble.
The production was superbly cast. Daniel C. Webb sang the title role, blustery and secure as lord of the manor. Gregory Gerbrandt played the sly and scheming Dr. Malatesta, friend of both Don Pasquale and his nephew, Ernesto, sung by Gennard Lombardozzi. Aaron Schnurbusch rounded out the male cast members as the notary, Carlino, hilariously costumed in short “high water” pants. Two servants, played by Patricia W. Zinke and Bill Mashburn, had no singing parts. The sole female role of Norina was performed by Kristen Yarborough (also the Company Manager), who stole the show again and again with her comic faces, pigeon-toed stance, commanding presence, and above all, her gorgeous singing. If ever there were a role to showcase her many talents, this is it.
The musical highlights were numerous, and every character shared the spotlight. Webb’s characterizations of the many facets of love — infatuation, confusion, anger, lust — were spot on. Early in Act I we learn of his delight in the prospect of marrying a youthful bride in “Un foco insolito.” Gerbrandt sang the perfect setup in "Bella siccome un angelo,” and was particularly funny in his long recitatives and patter songs. Lombardozzi sang an especially beautiful serenade, “Com'è gentil,” opening the final garden scene. Yarborough as Norina set the mark very high with her first aria, "Quel guardo, il cavaliere...So anch'io la virtù magica."
The uniform excellence of the production is an indicator of just how far this opera company has come. The fact that they could pull this off under such adverse conditions is no small feat. Congratulations and Bravi tutti!