The Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia's production of "Don Pasquale" on Friday and Saturday nights, under the approaching shadow of the Metropolitan Opera, showed once again that the modest delights of minor-league opera have a value all their own.
The Virginians are used to demonstrating this point. Lacking a big budget, they lavished love, ingenuity and imagination on Donizetti's comic masterpiece. By knowing and accepting its limitations, this company sometimes manages to transform them into something like assets. Some of the props and costumes in Arlington's Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre had a slightly makeshift air, and the orchestra was minimal--seven strings and five winds enclosed in a boxlike pit that reduced its sound to something like a 78-rpm recording. But this production put its money where it counts the most, particularly for Donizetti: in the voices. Some of them, notably tenor Wayne Rivera and baritone Roger Saylor, had warmup problems at the beginning, but all were excellent by the end.
There was only one all-purpose set, transformed from drawing room to boudoir to garden without benefit of a curtain, using Pasquale's six servants as costumed stage hands. The servants were mute until Act III, when they became a chorus, singing in the interval before the final scene while they whisked a desk and bookshelves out of sight, brought in benches and stylized shrubbery, then settled down to accompany the Serenade, the only part of the opera that was sung in Italian.
The chief attractions of this production were the vocal and comic talents of bass Philip Steele in the title role and soprano Candace Goetz as Norina, Don Pasquale's adversary in the battle of the sexes. Every word Steele sang came across the footlights with perfect clarity and finely shaped dramatic nuance, except in one patter song in which he accelerated to something like 500 words per minute.
Goetz emphasized tone over verbal clarity, as sopranos are wont to do, but her coloratura was agile and exquisitely controlled, and when the words were really important they were audible. Together, they made a strong case for opera (particularly comic opera produced by small companies) in English. For one moment, they allowed a hint of tragedy--in the climactic scene in which Norina slaps Pasquale. Then the show shifted back into comedy and into high gear.
Rivera's voice was not in complete control until it was absolutely needed. But in Act III, when he had to sing one of the greatest serenades in opera followed by one of the greatest love duets, his tone was as warm and flexible as the music. Conductor John Edward Niles directed with a good sense of bel canto style and dramatic pacing. The orchestra's ensemble playing was sometimes a bit tentative, but the phrasing was that of pure song.