I arrive early for the 8:00 performance of Don Pasquale excited to visit the Academy of Vocal Arts for the first time. My stomach drops however to find an empty lobby and be told the opera began at 7:30 and not 8. I’ve never been late to an opera before and am terribly embarrassed. Thankfully I only miss a few minutes and am escorted by a nice man to a room just outside where I can still catch the first act.
From here I am able to witness the enthusiasm of the stage director Richard Troxell who is softly cheering for the players and fine tuning details like the placement of a box of tasty cakes. The nights performance carries a wonderful undefinable quality, larger than its parts, where the players are enjoying the performance as much as the audience. I have to believe this enthusiasm and devotion is in large part generated by him.
Troxell sets Don Pasquale in 1967 South Philadelphia (the birthplace of my grandparents and my heavy Philly dialect). The local references warm my memories of late summer nights driving to Front and South streets or “the lakes,” then choosing between Pat’s or Gino’s (Ginos) to soak up the earlier evenings cruising. How different was my South Philly of 1987 to 1967? Not much I reckon recalling the locals in jeans and white t-shirts. I also recognize the television box, plastic cover on the couch, and crocheted blanket on top. I have lived much of my life on this stage set, but to be honest am probably also combing my real memories with images from movies like Rocky and Trading Places.
The supporting players are introduced wearing masks and I appreciate this detail that references the commedia del’ arte tradition the main characters will be based upon. As the story progresses they will bookend the main stage. On the far right girls are on a stoop and to the left boys play cards. It’s a cozy staging that helps bridge the rest of the audience into the world. The main staging effectively offers multiple locations within one space through the use of a turnstile.
No matter what magic may or may not have created by Troxell, this opera still depends on a believable Don Pasquale who needs to be pompous and over the top to a degree his menace isn’t taken seriously. Dylan Gregg takes the character on with hip-thrusting gusto and I eagerly wait for the tables to be turned on him. I also hope to see Gregg in a future casting as Faslstaff. Meanwhile, Malatesta played by Titus Muzi sings deeply while offering winks and nods to the audience to give us the real plot that Pasquale is oblivious to. Sahel Salam is a clean tenor filling the space and widening my eyes as Ernesto. Luella Grahn mellifluously strings the coloratura from patter to gilded penetration as Norina.
In addition to strong voice the cast have fun with the recitative, like when Ernesto declares that he is going to leave, full of derision, and go back to New Jersey.
This charming evening kept the joy going including an encore between Pasquale and Malatesta, when they broke the fourth wall to address the conductor and as the background turned and repeat their fun patter duet. Only once before have I witnessed an encore during an opera performance, the other la fille de regiment which is also written by Donizetti.
The Academy of Vocal Arts is the most intimate theatre space I can imagine and by time I am allowed to my seat during the intermission I am much closer to the conductor than the trumpeter. What a treat to see the musicians so closely and appreciate their collective effort, I marvel at their focus as they follow Donizetti’s notes and turn the pages. The score is so melodic that several times I have to stop myself from swaying.
I have seen the Academy of Vocal Arts play at several other venues with both friends and family but never at their main location Philadelphia. I smiled the whole evening thru. It was thru a correspondence with a member of the Academy’s staff that encouraged me to document these opera experiences and after I missing La Favorite for being sold out, then Mignon due to covid cancellations, I am so glad to be here for Don Pasquale.
Better late than never.
To end their school year the catholic school girls in my home town used to tie their shoes together and throw them up to wrap around the telephone wires. I enjoyed seeing details like this in the theater.
So What’s Don Pasquale all about? The nephew of Don Pasquale is in love with a young woman named Norina, but the Don wants her to marry another woman with more money. With a little cahoots and disguise Norina teaches the Don the lesson that love means more than money.
Notes on the Production:
Libretto…………………….. Giovanni Ruffini
Ernesto…………………….. Sahel Salam
Don Pasquale……………… Dylan Gregg
Dr. Malatesta………………. Titus Muzi
Norina……………………… Loella Grahn
Carlino (Notary)…………… Shawn Roth
Commedia dell’arte Performers:
Jenny Anne Flory
Conductor…………………. Richard Raub
This opera buffa draws on characters from the commedia del’ arte characters who were staples of Italian theater. It was the comfort tv of the time with reliable archetypal stock characters to enjoy.