Sunday, January 26, 2014

Opera Aeterna performs Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" in Jerusalem

Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” was performed by Opera Aeterna at the Khan Theatre, Jerusalem, on January 21st 2014. Established in 2003 under the auspices of non-profit organization Musica Aeterna, Opera Aeterna is supported by the Keshet Omanuyot Association, the Center for Absorption of Immigrant Artists and Returning Residents and the Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption. Under the musical direction of Maestro Ilya Plotkin, the company has produced several fully staged operas as well as opera concerts, with the majority of artists hailing from the former Soviet Union. For this event, Plotkin, musical director of Musica Aeterna, conducted a 10-piece ensemble and the singers from the stage. Stage director was Gera Sandler, who also added witty explanations of the plot in often rhyming Hebrew. Irina Tkachenko was costume- and set designer.

“Don Pasquale” is the 64th of Gaetano Donizetti’s (1797-1848) 66 operas. A domestic comic opera in three acts, the librettist Giovanni Ruffini based it on a libretto of Angelo Anelli. “Don Pasquale” premiered in January 1843 in Paris. Written a year before the onset of the illness that would eventually overwhelm the composer, the opera is one of the greatest pieces of Italian comic opera, but it shows other undercurrents. Thus, if one peers a little behind the wit of this opera buffa, one can glean a glimpse of pathos and the dark side of life. Don Pasquale (Yakov Strizhak) is an aging man who nonetheless wants to marry a young woman and produce an heir, being dissatisfied with the current heir, his nephew Ernesto (Dmitry Semyonov), whom he intends to disinherit, for Ernesto has fallen in love with Norina (Galina Tziferblat), an impoverished widow. Doctor Malatesta (Andey Trifonov), Pasquale’s physician and co-called friend, arranges a marriage between the old man and the disguised Norina, still assisting Ernesto and Norina in a vindictive plot.

With the four singers and Sandler’s costumes somewhat reminiscent of the commedia dell’arte style (minus the masks) Tkachenko had all four characters dressed vividly in clown costumes, excepting for Ernesto, whose clown costume was white. The opera began with actor and emcee Gera Sandler introducing the characters, then carrying each in like large shop dummies – an original and charming effect. Following the overture, the performance proceeded seamlessly with a mix of humor, mischief and marvelous music. Playing the prototypical basso buffo title role often sung by much more veteran singers, young Yakov Strizhak took the bull by the horns, playing an absurdly funny and slightly pathetic Don Pasquale, his ample voice fresh, rich and spontaneous taking on board florid passages, his facial expressions and clumsiness revealing his understanding of the unfortunate, gullible old man and his eventual introspection. The patter duet sung with Malatesta “Cheti, cheti, immantimente” (Quietly, quietly, right away) one of the most hilarious and demanding opera duets, was well handled.

Galina Tziferblat, well cast, is temporarily demure in the arms of her beloved Ernesto, but once free of them she becomes the saucy and cunning Norina of dubious morals, portrayed with a good measure of flirtation and cheapness. Tziferblat is loaded with stage personality and youthful zest, but, together with this, her voice is robust and commanding as she contends well with the sophisticated coleratura vocal part written by the mature Donizetti, bringing variety and contrast to the music.

Lyrical tenor Dmitry Semyonov played a totally naïve, love-struck Ernesto, his eyes often shut in total self-absorption (or showing us that love is also blind!) His pure, delicate and mellifluous voice dealt impressively with singing so much of the role in the upper third of the tenor range. His third aria, the poignant and touching serenade “Come’e gentil” (Soft beams the light) shining with his smooth tone, was delightfully accompanied by Uri Brener, who chose the lute register of the electric piano.

Displaying much opera experience and warmth of tone, baritone Andrey Trifonov, as Malatesta, was comfortable in the role, suave and smoothly manipulative, a schemer rather than a jokester, taking pleasure in his own connivances as he manipulated the three other characters. He even found time to flirt with one of the lady violinists!

Actor Gera Sandler emigrated from Moscow to Israel in 1990 and is prominent in Israeli theatre, television and the local film scene. His translations into Hebrew include plays from Russian and Yiddish poetry. His humor, articulacy and natural stage ability are always appealing. Delivering whimsical updates on the plot, he enabled non-Italian speakers in the audience to stay one step ahead of the opera’s hi-jinks.

Stage settings were simple, the garden scene, for example, consisting of a small white fence with a few flowers on it; refreshingly free of trendy clothes and contemporary scenes, mobile ‘phones etc., seen in too many of today’s opera productions, the Aeterna production allowed for this masterpiece’s stylish score with its real lyricism and elegant music, wit and beauty to dominate. Maestro Ilya Plotkin evoked the score’s instrumental sparkle with minimal forces: a bass guitar and electronic piano blended sympathetically with the strings and there were no wind instruments. The vocal ensembles were delightful, always highlighting the characters’ individual personalities and plights as each vocal line proceeds independently. In the final quartet, the opera has the characters singing of the foolishness of old men who court young women. Following this outstanding performance, played to a full hall, audiences in Israel would benefit from more performances of Opera Aeterna’s “Don Pasquale”.

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