GAETANO DONIZETTI’S 1843 OPERA Don Pasquale is all about that bass: the basso buffo commedia dell’arte character who is manipulated by another low-voiced character, the scheming Dr. Malatesta. On March 31, The Atlanta Opera presented a 1950s Hollywood-ish version of Don Pasquale at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and rebranded the title character as the ‘Sovereign of the the Silver Screen’, a former silent film star who is far past his prime. The concept and set design, by Peter Nolle and borrowed from Arizona Opera, is a play on Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Sunset Boulevard. And Don Pasquale is Norma Desmond.
Stage director Chuck Hudson, a graduate of the Marcel Marceau International School of Mimedrama in Paris, brought his considerable expertise to the choreography of the show, especially with the role of spoiled (and recently disowned) rich kid Ernesto, played by tenor Ji-Min Park, who pantomimed an entire series of hilarious suicide attempts accompanied by a plaintive trumpet solo. He melodramatically tried to end it all first by dagger—followed by poison, rope, and finally a toy revolver that ejected a banner displaying the word, “bang.” A leading man in real life, having represented Korea at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 2009 and singing leading roles at Covent Garden, in this production Park looked more like one of Ron Howard’s slow-witted gang from Happy Days, outfitted in too-short britches and a sweater vest. But when Park opened his mouth, he was anything but un-smart. His first solo moment, “Sogno soave casto” and ensuing Act II larghetto “Cercherò lontana terra” were carefully crafted, displaying what can only be described as raggio sonoro, an intensely ringing voice that cuts to the back of the theatre.
AO artistic and general director Tomer Zvulun brought soprano Georgia Jarman back to Atlanta to sing the role of Norina. Jarman’s Lucia here in 2011 was haunting and memorable. While Norina isn’t half as interesting as Lucia, Jarman’s rendition of “So anch’io la virtù magica” would have given any aspiring soprano pause. Jarman began the cavatina in a bathtub upstage, reading a screenplay, then emerged from the bubbles and into a quilted, purple bathrobe for the cabaletta. She interpolated fizzy triplets, meticulous grace notes, and improvised high notes to great effect after “subito languor.” The only tragedy was that the staging required her to sing half of the aria from the back of the stage.
Jarman’s dynamic chemistry with Dr. Malatesta (Alexey Lavrov), was so fast-paced that one had to pay close attention to fully appreciate it. Lavrov could be described as operatic eye candy at first glance, but it would only be half true. Exceedingly natural on stage, he sang the well-known larghetto cantabile, “Bella siccome un angelo,” with ease and surprising warmth in his upper and middle voice.
And what about the bass? Burak Bilgili was last seen in Atlanta as Frère Laurent in Romèo et Juliette, but he was much more fun this time around. The player who has been played, the character who lives among stacks of film reels and antiquated movie props, so endlessly nostalgic that he was literally black and white in this production, Bilgili’s Pasquale was brilliantly done. Bilgili was the lovable anchor of the show and of each ensemble—even when conductor Joseph Colaneri’s band got a bit unruly and made the singers work awfully hard to be heard at the end of Act II. The Turkish bass’s interpretation was an amalgamation of voice, movement, and comic verve. In the end, Donizetti’s hero was more than ready to release Norina from their fake union, taking up Mae West’s famous philosophy: “Marriage is a great institution – but I’m not ready for an institution.” —Stephanie Adrian