Director Richard Troxell situates the show in a few blocks of South Philadelphia’s Italian Market area, and Peter Harrison’s clever carousel set—the most effective I’ve seen here in a long time—captures the neighborhood with loving thoroughness. Stoops, doorways, plastic-covered furniture: All here, in living and lurid color.
So too are familiar signs for favorite local businesses, including Sarcone’s Bakery, and of course our legendary rival cheesesteak purveyors, Pat’s, and Geno’s. (I hope it’s deliberate wryness that places the Geno’s sign at the, um, far right of the stage.) The time period is less precise, but I’d estimate it’s the end of the ‘50s or very early ‘60s.
Before we get there, though, Troxell has another trick up his sleeve. Seconds into the overture, there’s a pantomime drawn from commedia dell’arte, performed by silent members of the chorus, who are costumed with traditional masks and employ the familiar gestures that establish characters and mood.
It’s a clever idea that, like some others here, doesn’t entirely work. Commedia requires tremendous verve as well as delicacy in the execution, and here it’s not sufficiently connected to the larger concept. But it’s smart to recognize that Don Pasquale’s archetypal characters—the grumpy old man, the saucy ingenue, the juvenile innamorato, the wily doctor—are indeed drawn from commedia.
More than that, this is the theatrical form that almost literally invented schtick… or, to use the commedia term, lazzi. And Troxell and company offer lazzi galore.
Most of the time, it’s exceptionally spirited and engaging. I’ve long believed that an audience can sense when the performers are comfortable and happy. That’s certainly my takeaway here, where even the choristers felt fully immersed in the world they were creating. Sometimes it’s too much, including groups of observing neighbors on both sides of the stage, which further limits the already small playing space.
To his credit, though, Troxell has given everyone a role to play and actions to establish character, and that is a wonderful thing to watch. At its best, which includes a hilarious cameo by a hunky Notary (Peter Barber) who can’t stop eating, and a reimagining of “Com’è gentil la notte a mezzo April” as a neighborhood doo wop get-together, it’s utterly beguiling.
The musical values are similarly well-served. One sensed again that the singers, following conductor Richard Raub and the orchestra’s propulsive but attentive support, felt freed to have good time.
As Don Pasquale, bass Cumhur Görgün, a first-year resident artist, was of course quite far from the veteran practitioners of this genre, but he threw himself into the action with brio, and his distinctive and vibrant voice—probably more naturally a basso-cantante than a buffo—certainly made an impression. He was also very strong on articulating the text.
Angel Raii Gomez (Ernesto) was the Audience Choice winner at last year’s Giargiari Bel Canto Competition, and indeed his liquid, warmly Mediterranean timbre is a crowd-pleasing sound; he’s also an appealing presence. He can bear down too much, which slightly marred a too-fast “Cerchero lontana terra.” But when Gomez eases up on the gas pedal, as it were—as in both and “Sogno soave e casto” and “Tornami a dir”—he’s a rising star.
Ethel Trujillo (Norina) won me over almost immediately with one of my test passages in this score: the little ridendo that marks that segue into “So anch’io la virtu magica,” which she did precisely following the score, while also making it feel spontaneously her own.
While there were occasional moments where she too pushed the sound and bordered on shrillness, most of the singing was stylish, elegant, and lovely. And she was utterly adorable channeling her character, who here emerges as Ann-Margret with a sprinkling of the late, great Gina Lollobrigida.
As for Kevin Godinez as Dr. Malatesta—this third-year resident is ready to launch a career. His chocolaty lyric baritone is a treat in itself, and the words are always first and foremost. Even among as strong a company as this one, he stood out for filling every moment with theatrical vitality and charm.
Good news across the board at AVA. I look forward to Don Giovanni later in the Spring.
Oh, and by the way—when it comes to cheesesteaks, there’s no contest. It’s Pat’s by a mile.
Photos: Morgan Horell