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VOL. 127 | NO. 59 | Monday, March 26, 2012

Prepare to Laugh at ‘Don Pasquale’

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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Love is sometimes cruel, but marriage can be even worse.

Opera Memphis actor Monica Yunus playing Norina rehearses Act 1, Scene 2 of “Don Pasquale” while Avi Pelto directs. “Don Pasquale” will be performed March 31 and April 3 at the Orpheum Theatre Memphis. (Photo: Dennis Copeland)

At least that’s the comedic truth behind Opera Memphis’ season finale in which romantic scheming leads to laughter.

“Don Pasquale” by Gaetano Donizetti will be performed March 31 and April 3 at the Orpheum Theatre Memphis. The third opera in a season meant to draw in first-time audiences, this one holds special meaning to general director Ned Canty because it was his first opera – the first one he enjoyed, that is.

“I saw (‘Don Pasquale’) at Glimmerglass Opera in 1996 and it turned me around,” Canty said. “For one thing, it was making me laugh. Comedy wasn’t something I expected from opera and there were times I had tears rolling down my cheeks.

“Another part is that I love Donizetti’s music. It’s lively and enjoyable. There’s something about it which really gets your blood pumping.”

There’s plenty of blood pumping among the love- and angst-ridden characters too.

There’s the elderly Roman bachelor, Don Pasquale, whose nephew Ernesto falls in love with a young widow named Norina. Pasquale doesn’t approve of the match though, and knowing little about love himself, tries to end it, eventually holding Ernesto’s inheritance over his head.

To drive his point home, Pasquale decides to marry as well and produce an heir, which will cut off Ernesto completely.

His friend and physician, Dr. Malatesta, decides that the poor wisdom of this decision is something Pasquale will have to learn for himself. He stages a mock wedding with Norina disguised as a quiet, convent-born Stepford wife. After the ceremony, she runs him to brink of his sanity.

Canty’s cast was handpicked from comic masters he’s work with previously, or who simply had a reputation as being the funniest in the business.

“For the cast, the No. 1 thing I thought was that if I haven’t seen you in something that made me laugh to the point where milk would come out of my nose, then I wouldn’t cast you in this show,” Canty said.

For Ernesto and Norina, Canty chose a real-life married couple, Brandon MacReynolds and Monica Yunus, both of whom he worked with while they were students at The Julliard School. Yunus now performs regularly at The Metropolitan Opera.

“Because I spent 15 years as a freelance director, roaming about away from my wife, I have a special sympathy for casting couples,” Canty said. “I think it’s fun when you can get a couple to perform together and it increases their quality of life. I always feel like that shows up on stage.”

Stefano de Peppo is cast as Don Pasquale. Canty worked with him in Israel in the late 1990s, but he’s originally from Milan, where he grew up in the children’s chorus of Lascala.

“The funny thing about him is that if you look at him, he looks like a model for Italian ‘Vogue,’ but he plays all of these old, fat, lecherous roles like Bartolo in ‘The Barber of Seville,’” Canty said. “He’ll come out after the show and no one will recognize him.”

Rounding out the cast is baritone Matthew Worth as Malatesta. Worth impressed Canty in a performance at the Opera America conference in which he and one other singer sang all four parts of a well-known quartet from “Rigoletto.”

The one twist in the production will be a subtle one – the set, borrowed from Virginia Opera, places the show in early 1900s America rather than Rome. That’s about 40 years later than Donizetti intended, but Canty said the period speaks to the issues in the opera well.

“It was the most interesting set that was out there,” Canty said. “There’s something about this era in our country where there were people who had ridiculous wealth and the idea of who would inherit that money was important. Also it was a time when families could have a lot of impact on whom one could marry.

“It’s also just before the 1920s when women gave up wearing bustles and corsets. There’s something literally busting to get free in the role of women.”

Asked if he thought that Memphis audiences generally showed up expecting to laugh at an opera, Canty said he was hopeful.

“I’ve been in this job a little over a year and every week I learn more about the audience here,” Canty said. “The thing that pleasantly surprised me is that people said that the Memphis audience really likes it when the soprano dies at the end. So I was worried that people might not enjoy (comedic) opera. But then people don’t always give their audiences enough credit.”

Tickets for “Don Pasquale” can be purchased by calling 257-3100 or by visiting www.operamemphis.org.

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