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NEW YORK CITY
Robinson's Juilliard production of Don Pasquale, with Abreu, Breiwick, Greenhalgh, Cha and colleagues
© Nan Melville 2013
New York has no better space for opera than Juilliard's Peter Jay Sharp Theater. The 933-seat auditorium brings the audience in close to the proceedings, yet the stage and pit are proportioned to allow the art form its intended scale. Moreover, when it serves as the venue for Juilliard Opera, it hosts exceptionally polished productions, scrupulously prepared and performed with zest and dedication.
That certainly was the case with this season's three-performance run of Don Pasquale, seen on its February 13 opening night. The musicians of the Juilliard Orchestra, under the expert guidance of Stephen Lord, attacked Donizetti's evergreen score with youthful brio. If the playing occasionally seemed a little rough around the edges, that seemed only idiomatic: in this repertoire, lively commitment trumps glossy refinement. Lord brought shape and momentum to the music while still allowing his soloists, both onstage and in the pit, enough leeway to make their expressive effects.
James Robinson's production placed the opera somewhere in the mid-twentieth century. The exact date slithered from decade to decade: at first, we seemed comfortably ensconced in the 1920s, but Norina redecorated Pasquale's abode — courtesy of Shoko Kambara's tour de force set design — for the dolce vita of the late '50s. (In this context, the doleful string tune at "È finita, Don Pasquale" could have been the work of Nino Rota.) The amorphousness of the period was hardly any problem; the playful updating made no definitive statement about Don Pasquale but instead helped the performers mine its humor. Robinson gave the cast plenty to do. Pasquale submitted to a workout routine for the infirm while boasting of his youthful vigor; Norina, here the proprietress of a newsstand, ensorcelled a pair of priapic bystanders during her entrance aria. None of this felt like mere shtick; Robinson's directorial tactics enlivened the piece without overwhelming it.
Three of Don Pasquale's four principal characters are young people, here appropriately assigned to graduate voice students. But casting the geriatric title character must have made a tougher proposition. One wonders whether Juilliard embarked on this project because it had a true Pasquale at hand in the person of bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha — to his credit, every inch the old fool. To be sure, Cha's tone was fresher than that of a veteran basso buffo. But it had a ripe, round quality that convincingly evoked a man quite a few decades past conservatory age, and in his physical deportment, he embodied the grandee's absurd vanity.
Deanna Breiwick made a lively, sparkly-eyed Norina. Her soprano leggiero is a small instrument — she couldn't turn up the juice when "Sofronia" switched from mouse to termagant. She does not have a wide range of colors to draw from, but her basic sound is lovely and focused, with a bell-like ring to it. Moreover, she brought variety and contrast to the music through scrupulous, detailed phrasing — the mark of a true singing musician.
Tobias Greenhalgh's Malatesta was a scamp and a charmer, taking infectious delight in his own connivances. I'm not entirely sure this singer, so clearly headed for success, will find a permanent berth in this particular repertoire: his voice registered as warm but soft-grained, lacking the slicing edge of a truly Italianate baritone. But he is a thoroughly engaging performer, agile in his movements and assured in his stage manner, and he sang with polish and unfailing accuracy. When he and Cha erupted in precisely synchronized syncopation during their "Cheti, cheti, immantinente" duet — Lord's tempo making no allowance for rookies — it felt like we were witnessing a veritable explosion of talent.
Ernesto was Javier Abreu, a Juilliard alum in the midst of a professional career, subbing for a previously announced tenor. His command of bel canto style was unquestionable, but he was not by any means in good voice. His sound was woefully constricted, as if some phantom impediment were preventing it from emerging from his throat. He nonetheless proved himself an expert physical comedian, throwing his small, wiry frame into the knockabout antics that Robinson had devised for him and sustaining the spirit of fun that so thoroughly characterized this blithe, exuberant Don Pasquale.
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