No wigs. No velvet. No awkward static sets. Richard Troxell, the director of this new production at the Academy of Vocal Arts of Donizetti’s comic opera, Don Pasquale, had the genius idea of setting the show in the 1950s in South Philly: sneakers dangling over wire and under them Geno’s and Pat’s ads; a guy in a Phillies hat sets up a checkerboard with a bunch of pals under a “No Loitering” sign. And so we are transported into Don Pasquale’s living room where he is asleep on the sofa (covered in plastic, natch).
The plot of this 19th century comic opera by Donizetti is as old as the hills: A rich old guy lures a sweet young thing into his clutches. There will be payback. Have you heard that one? Me, too.
His so-called friend, Dr. Malatesta (Kevin Godinez) convinces Don Pasquale (the excellent bass Cumhur Gorgun) that his sister, a nun, is the girl for him. Enter Norina (Ethel Trujillo who can unleash a terrific soprano). A fake wedding is arranged by a fake notary (Peter Barber in a blood-stained butcher’s apron). Ernesto (Angel Gomez), Norina’s true love, is left heartbroken. It’s a comedy, so no need to worry: true love will win out but not before Norina takes over and spends Don Pasquale’s money and wrecks his his house as well as his life.
The large cast is full of fun and strong voices and, remarkably, they are terrific comic actors. The large orchestra under the baton of Richard Raub fills the small space (with, admittedly difficult sight lines) with the lush and lively music.
The movable set—brilliantly designed by Peter Harrison— makes clever use of the tiny stage; the costumes (Val Starr) are witty and the surtitles are hilariously colloquial.
As South Philly’s Bandstand teens used to say to rate a new song: “I like the beat, I think it swings, I’ll give it an 85.” This Don Pasquale deserves an even hi
gher score for this well-sung, cleverly staged and altogether enjoyable evening. Con brio indeed.
[Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce Street] February 16-23, 2023; avaopera.org