Opera meets commedia dell'arte

Posted: Thursday, November 04, 2004

Joyce Parry Moore, director of Opera to GO!, sang some of Gaetano Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" in graduate school, and revisited the music at Central City Opera in Colorado a few years ago.

The opera, with its small cast and small chorus, seemed to fit the mission of Juneau's Opera to GO! perfectly.

"My idea for the beginning of this company was combining the two art forms that came out of Italy during the Italian Renaissance, opera and commedia," she said. "And what would it be like to do that with an opera company that was small and mobile."

"Don Pasquale" plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Nov. 5-6, 12-13 and 19-20 at McPhetres Hall, Fourth and Gold streets. It also plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Nov. 11 and 18. A free preview will be held at 7:30 p.m. today, Nov. 4.

Opening night, Friday, Nov. 5, will start with a pre-show reception for Opera to GO! subscribers at the Baranof Hotel and a post-show dance party at the Silverbow with music by the Robert Cohen Jazz Trio.

The original "Don Pasquale" was set in Donizetti's Rome. This version has been updated to the 1960s. Parry Moore and director Ryan Conarro watched period pieces such as "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "La Dolce Vita," plus contemporary films like "Down With Love" to get some ideas on how to present the story.

"The 1960s is another time in our contemporary history where things were changing," Parry Moore said. "We were coming out of the conservatism of the 1950s, but we weren't into something as wacky as the 1970's yet. It was an era obsessed with image. The look of the period was a really gorgeous look: You have some classic lines and clothes and some fun elements to it.

"It's also a time that I associate with feminism, which is another important element to me," she said. "Norina (her character) is somewhat of a feminist. She wants to be herself. She knows the games that she's playing to get what she wants, but she believes in having fun and she's a very strong personality."

Donizetti (1797-1848) had just been named music director of the court of Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria when he completed "Don Pasquale." It was the 64th of his 66 operas, and it premiered in 1843 at Paris' Theatre Italien. A few months later, mad with syphilis, he was committed to an insane asylum.

"The genre is opera buffa, which was sort of at its height when he composed this," Conarro said. "That was in response to opera series, which had been around for awhile at that time. People were getting tired of opera for the sake of the music, and in opera buffa there's a lot more humor going on in the language. Some composers found it more challenging to write music that could be successful with comedy."

"It's written very well," Parry Moore said. "You can hear every single comedic bit, and you can hear exactly what he wants you to. He's also poking fun at opera singers. He has a tenor hold a high note really long, and he has sopranos doing all three high notes. It's fun as a singer to have that sense of humor in the voice, within what you're doing as an actor. And it's also helpful for people who are learning how to use their voice."

Donizetti and "Don Pasquale" were influenced by the Italian commedia dell'arte movement. Commedia lasted from the 14th through the 18th centuries, peaking in the 16th and 17th. It was known for its exaggerated physical performances, improvisation, stock characters, romantic conundrums and "lazzi" -clever asides from characters milling about in the background.

"There are definite elements of the stock characters," Conarro said. "Pasquale relates to Pantalone, who was usually this old miserly guy, sometimes lecherous. And Malatesta, an actor, is obviously Lectore, who's usually kind of conniving or sort of sick. And then Norina and Ernesto relate to the young lovers of commedia, sort of the fresh-faced lovers who are very melodramatic."

"(Don Pasquale) almost is a parody of commedia, and commedia itself is a parody of everyday life," said Philippe Damerval, who plays Pasquale. "So it's a parody of a parody, and every character has a double aspect to themselves. It's hard not to think of the symbol of the theater itself: the two masks. It's constantly alternating between the masks, placing each familiar character in a familiar situation and playing it as loudly and as big as possible to make a good caricature, not just of life but of commedia itself."

Cool jazz was another trend in the 1960s. And although Donizetti's score was written years before jazz, it does include a notable trumpet solo. Music director William Todd Hunt has assembled a stripped-down chamber orchestra for the accompaniment.

Conarro decided to include the small chorus in the story, almost as the "lazzi." They help explain Ernesto and Norina's meeting in the overture, and they crop up throughout the opera with witty asides, or as the paparazzi.

"I did try to come up with a lot more stylized physical comedy to it," Conarro said. "And we used the chorus so that they can help set up the physical story by being people on the street."

"Don Pasquale" is Conarro's first attempt at directing an opera.

"I think a lot of the performers aren't used to performing physically as much as I've asked them to," he said. "On the flip side, I think there are times where I've had to learn to clamp down and not require so much of people physically. I have to admit that the music is the first priority in the opera."

"Physical characters go along with commedia," said Damerval, acting in his first true comedy. "Every face has to be big. It's about caricatures and making people laugh with stereotypes. It's been difficult to do a good job. What I thought was big was barely visible. Ryan had to teach me that you can still go bigger."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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