BAR HARBOR — One would think a two-and-a-half-hour opera with a very silly plot performed by a small cast on a hot July night in an old theater with little or no air conditioning would be a diabolical new form of torture.
The Bar Harbor Music Festival’s production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” last Friday night at the Criterion managed to keep the audience’s mind on the beautiful music sung by three handsome young men and a gorgeous young woman with voices to match.
“Don Pasquale” is a comedy about two star-crossed lovers and a scheming friend who play a rather mean trick on an old man (Don Pasquale) in order to get his permission to marry. As a good deal of the audience was made up men and women in Don Pasquale’s age group – including about 40 visiting “Road Scholars” (formerly Elder Hostel) from all over the country, it is a testament to the fine acting and singing of the cast that there was a lot more laughter than outrage at their antics.
Director Joey Desota set this version of the opera in the 1950s, which added another element of fun with Zoe Still’s excellent costumes and clever set designs. Most notable was her pink poolside paradise with our heroine, Norina, (an exquisite April Martin), looking for all the world like Esther Williams ready to take a plunge.
Considering the humidity, it’s a sure bet the three men in the cast wished they were wearing bathing suits, too, but they still managed to keep the action brisk in their business suits and sweater vests.
But really it is all about the voices, and Martin’s thrilling soprano cut through the heavy air in the theater, carving out her lilting trills and glissandos with the precision of a ruby laser. In the titular role, David Cushing’s rumbling bass sounded like an approaching thunderstorm. Even though he was playing an old curmudgeon, it was pretty darn sexy when he unleashed that near meteorological phenomenon into the theater.
John Viscardi played the role of Malatesta, the doctor friend who devised the plot to have Norina flirt with the old codger, pretend to marry him and then drive him so loco he agreed to her marriage with his nephew just to get rid of her. Despite this rather nasty betrayal, the bad doctor did all his scheming in such a fine strong baritone we couldn’t help but forgive him.
As the lovelorn nephew, David Margulis was quite loveable with his bashful portrayal of Ernesto. His falsetto was a bit edgy in a couple of brief measures, but his sweet, lyric tenor grew stronger as the story evolved, which was, actually, perfectly in character.
Clara Chowning’s piano accompaniment throughout was excellent and made us forget there wasn’t a full pit orchestra.
This evening of opera has become a cherished tradition of the Bar Harbor Music Festival’s diverse season of music making and an opportunity for audiences to experience The Criterion Theater in its finest form as an elegant venue for non-amplified performances.