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Horse opera

Wild West adaptation of Donizetti work rides into town, guns a-blazin'

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It's a long way to take Donizetti's comic opera Don Pasquale out of its traditional 1840s Rome setting and relocate it to America's Wild West, where cowboys with six-shooters roam the range and frequent the local brothels.

But is it too far?

Director Rob Herriot sees such horsing around with Donizetti's tuneful romp as a compelling way to open up its visual potential, as well as its accessibility to contemporary audiences more familiar with Bonanza or Deadwood.

"I think its original setting is dour and doesn't reflect the lightness of the piece," says Herriot, the director of Manitoba Opera's spaghetti-western version of Don Pasquale, which opens tonight at the Centennial Concert Hall. "This concept gives it visual buoyancy and a feeling we're outside in this vast expanse."

In 2001, American stage director David Gately first conceived of transporting Don Pasquale for a small rural New York opera company. It didn't stretch the libretto very much, as there is only one reference to Rome in it. Gately believed going west with it opened up comic possibilities as well as softening some of the unpleasant edges that could turn off some patrons -- in particular, the way the title character is the victim of a cruel ruse.

A consortium of mid-sized American opera companies pooled its resources the following year to do a more elaborate version of his western Don Pasquale and Gately hired Herriot, who had a soft spot for the opera because his first role was Ernesto, the don's nephew.

The production was a defining moment for the River Heights resident and became a catalyst for his career. He has saddled up 10 times to direct Gately's rootin', tootin', shootin' version, which has become a well-travelled contemporary classic.

Herriot remembers the San Diego collaboration spared no expense, as designer Tony Fanning was just finishing up as the art director for the blockbuster movie Spider-Man. Backed by a cyclorama of northern Arizona's Monument Valley, the stage was packed with cacti, a full-size stuffed black bear, spur-jingling cowboys, spittoons, chaps and even a horse. The San Diego opera sets, some of the most detailed Manitoba Opera has ever featured, will be presented on the concert hall stage.

"There's nothing wrong when the curtain goes up on a beige set in 16th-century Spain, but at this time of year, I want to see a little colour," says Herriot, a University of Manitoba graduate.

Donizetti's plot remains essentially untouched, although one of his characters is said to utter, "Howdy," according to the titles projected above the stage. It is doubtful the Italian composer included the familiar greeting in his libretto, which is sung in Italian.

Prosperous hotel owner Don Pasquale wants to disinherit his unco-operative nephew Ernesto, after the young man resists his attempt to arrange a marriage. The 70-year-old don then plans to take a wife and produce a true heir when his friends, including Dr. Malatesta, play a mean joke on him, involving a sham wedding to the much younger Norina, whom the penniless Ernesto wants to marry. Old-world ways meet new-world reality that ends in comedy and comeuppance.

The Manitoba Opera production features Peter Strummer in the title role, with tenor Michele Anglini as Ernesto, soprano Nikki Einfeld as Norina and lyric baritone Brett Polegato as Dr. Malatesta.

"It's like a sitcom," says Herriot, who added his own comic touches, including a wrangling scene for Ernesto. "It could be a Gunsmoke or Bonanza episode. It has that feel. I think of Ed O'Neill in Modern Family, who has married a younger woman (and) tries to control the children, but things don't go his way. He's a bit of a buffoon."

Strummer, the Tulsa, Okla.-based singer, returns to his former hometown with his rich bass-baritone to play Pasquale, which he first performed at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 1976. Since then he has noticed that it's rarely presented, a situation he doesn't understand, since he believes the opera is loaded with beautiful music.

He was worried the opera's move to Arizona might be a gimmick that would not serve the text, but he has been won over.

"There is more humanity in Don Pasquale than any other opera," says the Vienna-born singer, who came to Winnipeg as a child in the early '50s. "The fact that this old man has the conceit, the vanity to think that a 25-year-old woman is going to fall in love with him is beyond the pale. Everyone is trying to teach him a lesson and they bring him down so far. It's real."

And tragic. When the don gets his face slapped, his life is over, says Strummer, a 40-year veteran of comic roles.

"In order to create a good Pasquale, you have to work from the slap backwards, because you can't make him a stock character," says Strummer, who appeared at Sacristan in Tosca at the Manitoba Opera in 2010. "He's anything but. He does everything with purpose. As soon as he is married, he is in for a load of trouble."

Herriot doesn't think that Donizetti would challenge him or Gately to a showdown over what they've done to his opera.

"I think he would love it," says Herriot. "I can't see this piece being done any other way anymore. Whenever someone says Don Pasquale, now I see cowboy hats and spurs, because it really brings it life."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2013 G1

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