by Chris Davis
Opera Memphis isn’t returning to The Orpheum. Not for a while, anyway. Puccini's popular tragedy La Boheme, which inspired the frequently-revived Broadway musical/cultural touchstone Rent opens the season at Germantown Performing Arts Centre, where Canty staged his rambunctious Die Fledermaus. Donizetti's The Elixir of Love follows, and in the same location. The season ends with a weeklong festival of chamber Operas at Playhouse on the Square, where OM gave Michael Ching’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream its noteworthy world premiere.
So the changes aren’t simply a matter of location, location, location. Selections chosen for the festival include Bon Appetite and This is the Rill Speaking, a pair of one acts by American composer Lee Hoiby. Rill was written in collaboration with playwright Lanford Wilson, who died in 2011, and whose work is being produced by both Theatre Memphis and Playhouse on the Square next season. Bon Appetite depicts Julia Child in her studio teaching Americans how to bake a proper chocolate cake (with espresso!).
It’s a smartly plotted, synergistic mix of popular favorites and uncommon delights that errs on the side of quirky. There’s much for the traditionalist, and some tasty bait for the opera curious still put off by surtitles and stereotypes.
The Orpheum’s a jewel, opulent and over-the-top in every way. But the ornate frame can also compete with what’s happening on stage. Intimacy has never been a strong point. Intimacy’s also what made the a cappella A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It's what made a sold-out Die Fledermaus feel more exciting than just another clever staging of Die Fledermaus. Even though the grand chandeliers seem almost like an extension of John Pascoe’s beautifully-imagined scenic design, more intimacy might have have done Opera Memphis’s already excellent Don Pasquale a world of good.
Pasquale is inspired by the rowdy sometimes rude and often acrobatic performances born in the street markets of Italy. The Commedia dell’arte was eventually subsidized by the upper class, lost most of its edge and evolved into a more polite character- driven dance drama. It was eventually absorbed into the Opera buffa.
The characters are all stock and soaked in tradition. Stefano de Peppo honors those traditions as the titular Don Pasquale, an old (but well preserved) Pantalone who wants to marry.
Pantalone is the the Commedia’s ultimate cloud-punching “get off my lawn” crank. In the American idiom he has always been well represented from Jack Benny’s surreal stinginess to the posture and mannerisms of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.
de Peppo’s movement — let’s call it a lazzo of the bad back— is studied, precise and a real treat to watch. His expressive bass voice seems especially well suited for Donizetti's giddier passages.
Soprano Monica Yunus is a joyfully duplicitous Norina, the bride of Don Pasquale. The Metropolitan Opera regular has luminous eyes made for comedy. Her performance style is less formal than de Peppo’s but she throws herself into the part. The post shopping-spree scene plays out like a lost episode of I Love Lucy translated into Italian and set to music. All she can do is show off her prizes, all he can say (or sing) is, “DIVORCE!”
Don Pasquale’s a ridiculous story with no redeeming qualities and it was never supposed to be anything else. If it doesn’t sound spectacular look great and make you laugh there’s just not much there. With the help of conductor Ari Pelto’s nuanced work in the pit and Garnett Bruce’s mostly crisp (occasionally crowded) stage direction it does all of these things— mostly. And with quite a bit of style.
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