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Apprentice explodes into the spotlight of the Santa Fe Opera

Zachary Nelson, left, is Dr. Malatesta and Andrew Shore is Don Pasquale in the Santa Fe Opera production of “Don Pasquale.” (Courtesy of Robert Godwin/The Santa Fe Opera)

Zachary Nelson, left, is Dr. Malatesta and Andrew Shore is Don Pasquale in the Santa Fe Opera production of “Don Pasquale.” (Courtesy of Robert Godwin/The Santa Fe Opera)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It must have been a magical night for young singer Shelley Jackson. Spelling the indisposed Laura Tatulescu, this second-year apprentice stepped into the role of Norina opening “Don Pasquale” with barely a few days’ notice.

Indeed, she exploded into the spotlight of the Santa Fe Opera last Saturday night, bringing a sparkling freshness both vocally and theatrically to a standard role of bel canto opera.

“Don Pasquale” was one of Donizetti’s last of some 70 operas. Only a handful are worthy of repertoire status, but in “Pasquale” the composer utilizes his lifetime of experience in the theater.

Donizetti wrote both music and libretto, taking an earlier comic opera as the basis for his plot – comic traditions extending back to commedia dell’arte.

The challenge for director Laurent Pelly is turning the many obsolete social mores into comedy for the 21st century without mutilating the fundamental nature of the work. But with a few well-placed detours of characterization, Pelly succeeds in doing just that.

For instance in her primary aria, “Quel guardo, il cavaliere,” Norina reads aloud a passage from a Nora Roberts-type novel of the 19th century. She does so here as comic satire in her slovenly-kept bedroom, but still reflecting that she too is fully versed in feminine wiles to capture a man’s attention.

Liberties are taken regarding the translation, but purists can simply listen to the original sung in Italian.

Jackson is called upon to act several roles within a role – cynical slob; demure country girl; utter shrew and finally ardent lover. For her stellar performance she was justly showered with applause especially from a coterie of admirers in the gallery.

In the title role Andrew Shore gives us an evermore ludicrously doddering wealthy bachelor expecting the cunning physician Dr. Malatesta to provide him with a young and youth-giving wife.

Management of the SFO seems, rightfully, quite high on baritone Zachary Nelson, two years ago an apprentice and last year’s Figaro in “The Marriage of Figaro.” A talented comic actor with a smooth yet arresting baritone, Nelson returns again this summer to sing a delightfully textured and hilariously funny puppet-master as Dr. Malatesta. Artfully he instructs Norina how to play the part of an innocent maiden to entrap Pasquale into his plot.

It’s the eternal love triangle – well, sort of. Except that here the two males are father and son, unwittingly part of Malatesta’s ultimately benevolent machinations. Tenor Alek Shrader gives an often intentionally over-the-top portrayal of Ernesto, Norina’s true love.

In “Cerchero lontana terra,” believing himself deceived both by Norina and his only friend Malatesta, Ernesto expresses his most tender feelings. Pelly often calls upon Shrader to perform slapstick – climbing a ladder, struggling with suitcases – during his most lyrical moments.

The music direction by Corrado Rovaris winds into some sparkling climaxes, most notably the rapid-fire patter of Shore and Nelson that ends the third act. Sets are ingeniously simple, and not to give away a comic surprise, suffice it to say the opening of act three gives the term “topsy-turvy” a new sensibility.

“Don Pasquale” repeats at the Santa Fe Opera at 8 p.m. July 29, Aug. 4, 9, 13, 19 and 22.

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