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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 33.0° F  Overcast
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A tart fleeces an old man in University Opera's Don Pasquale
Caitlin Cisler (Norina), Matthew Tintes (Don Pasquale), and Samus Haddad (Dr. Malatesta), with the chorus in background.
Caitlin Cisler (Norina), Matthew Tintes (Don Pasquale), and Samus Haddad (Dr. Malatesta), with the chorus in background.
Credit:University Opera

The University Opera took us to the Roaring Twenties in Friday's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's Don Pasquale at UW Music Hall. The Italian comic opera was a sensation at its premiere in 1843 and has had favorable runs ever since.

In the opening set, director William Farlow goes against his sparse and simple taste in décor in favor of ornate furniture, yawning archways and hot colors. It's the bachelor pad of Don Pasquale (Matthew Tintes), an old man of considerable means, and his nephew and heir, Ernesto (James N. Kryshak), who loves the feisty young widow Norina (Caitlin Cisler). Pasquale is fed up with Ernesto's uppity ways and decides to toss him out of the house, get married and have his own heirs. Ernesto's friend Dr. Malatesta (Samus Haddad) designs a cunning plot: marry Pasquale to Sofronia, Dr. Malatesta's convent-bred sister, who is really Norina in disguise.

Everyone except Pasquale knows this is a charade orchestrated by a fake notary (John Gravelle). Marriage marks the beginning of bad times for Pasquale as Norina rips off her convent veil and the sweet, docile bride transforms into a demanding spendthrift dominatrix who slaps Pasquale around when she doesn't get what she wants. When Dr. Malatesta comes clean and tells Pasquale that his marriage was staged and Sofronia is really Norina, Ernesto's lover, the old man is so happy to be rid of her that he gives her and Ernesto his blessings and his money too.

Donizetti uses a lot of ensembles in the opera, and the singers are at their best in these. In between the comic thrill of the ensembles are lovely arias in the bel canto style for Norina and Ernesto. Music director James Smith and the UW Chamber Orchestra keep a steady pace to the farce and bring clarity and agility to the music's shifting moods.

Pasquale is impressive when his anger at his disobedient wife erupts in recitatives of sputtering patter, a speech pattern so fast that it borders on madness. And Dr. Malatesta perfectly blends singing and acting to create a role that reaches across the stage lights and draws us in.

Director Farlow's Roaring Twenties setting is a good one for Don Pasquale. Norina portrays the liberated 1920s woman who drinks, smokes and goes to the theater unaccompanied. She sheds the Gibson Girl look for short shorts in Act 1 and the hot pink one-hour dress that she flaunts in Act 3. Pasquale, with his modest colorless suits and stiff demeanor, represents pre-war propriety and manners. In the end, Norina gets what she wants.

Despite some of the acoustical imbalances in Music Hall, Friday's performance was remarkably even, and the talent of these fine young singers showed through.

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