Berkshire Opera Festival's 'Don Pasquale' has some lessons for amorous geezers

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GREAT BARRINGTON — It's an opera plot as old as the geezer it mocks: The old boy wants to marry a sweet young thing and winds up making a fool of himself.

All in good fun, of course.

Donizetti seized on the conceit in "Don Pasquale," which the Berkshire Opera Festival is pursuing for laughs, and one tear, in a wildly imaginative production now playing at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. The period oscillates between 18th century and Victorian, and the singing is — well, it's what singing should be if it is to fit the slapstick of the staging: gruff, gaga, glittery.

The run of three performances began Saturday and continues at 7:30 tonight and Friday. Be warned: Saturday's opening showed that director Jonathon Loy spares no opportunity for gags and conductor Brian Garman leads an exemplary cast and responsive orchestra and chorus.

The story is either baldly simple or insanely complicated, depending on your point of view. To cure the wealthy but miserly Pasquale of his lust for a young bride, Doctor Malatesta ("Doctor Headache"), his sister Norina and her lover Ernesto concoct a plot for a fake marriage of Norina to Pasquale. Norina — disguised as Sofronia — torments the old lecher until he surrenders her to Ernesto.

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In the final scene in this production, as love conquers all, an illuminated trellis in a secret garden leads to presentation of a three-tiered wedding cake for the true lovers. The chastened Pasquale, stuffed with a mouthful of cake by Norina, blesses the marriage. The moral (more or less): Act your age.

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The Mahaiwe stage is cramped for this. The orchestra is seated onstage on one side, and a single set, consisting of Pasquale's villa, a staircase and a balcony, dominates the other side, leaving only a patch of space — fortunately sufficient — for the action. Pasquale's ratty old recliner is replaced by his supposed bride with a floppy modernistic chair, allowing innumerable opportunities for pratfalls.

Some of Loy's stage business is over the top. Norina slaps Pasquale not once (as in the story) but several times; Ernesto climbs into a trunk in lover's despair, and Norina becomes a scantily clad dominatrix, with whip, to terrorize Pasquale. People grovel and roll around at any old moment on the floor. But hey, this is Italian comic opera. Anything can happen, and does.

The singers all possess ringing, true voices and roll-on-the-floor, scamper-up-and-down-the-staircase comic gifts. Barking and booming in his boisterous bass-baritone, Craig Colclough makes a gray-maned Pasquale not just a sap but, when Norina delivers the crucial blow, a pitiful old man. For just a moment, you — and she — have to feel sorry for the guy.

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As Norina, Deanna Breiwick plays the airhead and vixen, delivering her showy coloratura and flowing bel canto lines with high-flying agility, though with hints of strain at the top. Baritone Emmett O'Hanlon is an oily Malatesta, and tenor Matthew Grills an ardent Ernesto, with a nice lyric bent. A bevy of singers cavorts and, at one point, breaks into a chorus line doing the kick-kick and can-can as black-uniformed servants. Siddharth Dubey takes the brief role of a notary.

The lighting is by Alex Jainchill, the costumes — including men's suits that look like yesterday's bad fashion — by Charles Caine.

A shining moment for the orchestra was the sad melody it delivered when Norina beheld the damage she had done with her slap; the accompaniment told all. The Act III patter-song duet between Pasquale and Malatesta, exulting over their plot, was so deliciously done and so roundly applauded that the ending was encored.     

In its fourth season, Berkshire Opera Festival has a hit on its hands. Go and be prepared to say: This is ridiculous — no, this is fun.


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