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Comic opera's voices thrill

But creative risks don't always work

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A lovelorn Ernesto (Michele Angelini) tries to ease his woes with liquor and women in Manitoba Opera's production of Don Pasquale.

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A lovelorn Ernesto (Michele Angelini) tries to ease his woes with liquor and women in Manitoba Opera's production of Don Pasquale.

MANITOBA Opera saddled up opera lovers this past weekend for its rootin'-tootin' season-opener Don Pasquale la spaghetti western.

Donizetti's opera buffa, last staged by Manitoba Opera in 1997, is typically set in circa 1840s Rome. This tongue-in-cheek version based on San Diego Opera's 2001 production transplants the story 40 years later to an imagined American wild west, where men were men and women pack pistols while belting out high Cs.

Directed by Winnipegger Robert Herriot, the 160-minute (with two intermissions) production also featured the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra led by Tyrone Paterson. Tony Fanning's intricately detailed sets, on loan from the San Diego Opera, featured a saloon, study and garden, with a horse providing dramatic entrances.

The opera tells the tale of crotchety old miser Don Pasquale, who wishes to deny his nephew Ernesto his inheritance by getting married. His wily doctor, Malatesta, cooks up a plan -- the Don "marries" Ernesto's true love, the feisty young widow Norina, and the Don is tricked into believing she is the doctor's pious, convent-loving sister, Sofronia.

After Pasquale's new "bride" torments him, he begs to be released from his bogus nuptials and agrees to Ernesto and Norina's marriage.

Manitoba Opera is to be commended for taking creative risks and daring to mess with Donizetti's popular comedy. However, all too often, the extra hijinks and stage business pulled the focus away from many of the opera's big vocal moments, inadvertently competing with mariachi bands, pantalooned floozies and even a stuffed squirrel.

This became a constant showdown for attention. Ruffini's libretto contains enough built-in comedy; by negating or avoiding poignant contrasts, more actually became less.

Ultimately, opera is about bel canto -- beautiful voices -- and Manitoba Opera's new production teemed with soaring arias and vocal pyrotechnics delivered almost flawlessly.

Local opera buffs will remember Winnipeg-born Nikki Einfeld's sparkling portrayal of Marie during Manitoba Opera's 2012 production of Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment. This year, she takes her madcap comedy even further as sassy widow Norina, who's in cahoots with Malatesta.

Her crystal-clear, lyric coloratura soprano has only grown stronger and more confident, with the perky performer flouncing about the stage during her opening cavatina Quel guardo il cavliere/So anch'io la virtù magica before her wheedling Via, caro sposino, replete with gravity-defying runs. Plus, she swings a mean lasso.

Another pleasure is seeing bass-baritone Peter Strummer in the title role. After a few balance problems with the orchestra during the opening Ah, un foco insolito, his booming voice and comedy entertained.

American tenor Michele Angelini's chaps-wearing cowboy Ernesto enthralled right from his first aria, his swoon-inducing voice filling the hall without showing any hint of strain.

Lyric baritone Brett Polegato's Dr. Malatesta, stylized as a cigar-toting Buffalo Bill Cody with sidekick Hop Sing (Alan Wong), machinates the plot like a master puppeteer. From the first note of his Bella siccome un angelo, where he sings of his "sister's" innocent charms, he immediately established his presence, matched only by his rapid-fire delivery of Aspetta, aspetta, cara sposina.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 25, 2013 D3

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