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Nickel City Opera’s ‘Don Pasquale’ is a rare treat

What a rug!

That’s one observation you will probably exclaim as you enjoy Gaetano Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” being performed by Nickel City Opera this weekend.

Without giving everything away, the rug on the floor of the grand set – a 1920s mansion – is priceless. So is the rug that sits on, and often flies off of, the head of Valerian Ruminski, who stars as the rich buffoon Don Pasquale.

There is so much to laugh about in “Don Pasquale,” and so much to appreciate. It’s a breathless comedy that never lets up – until near the end, when it broadsides you with a note of real pathos. Great art does that.

Nickel City sets it in the vaudeville era, which suits the broad comedy. The 70-something Pasquale wants to disinherit his nephew, Ernesto, and so decides to take a wife. To set him straight, his friends play a mean joke on him, involving a sham wedding to Norina, whom Ernesto wants to marry. If you don’t know the story in advance, don’t read up on it. Just go, and enjoy the surprises.

It is a rare treat to see Ruminski, the head of NCO, heading the cast. He can always be counted on to be a ham, when the occasion demands it, and this one does. Even at the dress rehearsal, his energy jumped off the stage. His bass voice boomed. He has performed this role before, with Opera Hawaii, and is at home in it. He was always 150 percent engaged, up to something.

The down side to him starring is that it unfairly challenges the rest of the cast. Ernesto, sung by able tenor Benjamin Brecher, looks bloodless in comparison, like a Ken doll. Brecher’s beautiful bel canto love serenades to Norina seem wooden and dutiful. You could almost imagine Norina preferring Pasquale, bad comb-over and all.

Soprano Zulimar Lopez-Hernandez, as Norina, is gorgeous and has an admirable star quality. Her voice is robust and commanding, and up to Donizetti’s considerable demands.

James Wright Jr. is entertaining and comfortable as Dr. Malatesta, the wag who orchestrates all the trickery. Wright, a lyrical baritone, has appeared in NCO operas before, and he gets better.

The drama zooms forward like a well-oiled Wild Mouse. The musicians in the pit, led by Michael Ching, include an accordion, lending a surprise Neapolitan touch, and a tambourine, which was rather too prominent at the dress rehearsal. There were some rough edges in this final run-through, but the orchestra kept pace admirably with the action. In “Don Pasquale,” the music and the action really are one. As Pasquale becomes mired in the wages of his foolishness, Donizetti ratchets up the music, heightening the mockery. Then there is the terrible moment when Pasquale breaks down – for a short time, it’s not a joke, and the music reflects that.

The lightning-quick Italian patter numbers were in remarkable sync. The production is not as madcap as Ruminski had promised, but it is more elegant. A theater-minded friend who went with me remarked on how deftly the director, David Grabarkewitz, arrayed the characters on the stage. It is like watching a kaleidoscope – they’re colorful and symmetrical and shift about in ways that are beautiful to see.

There are zany touches. The fine chorus included, at times, such random figures as a chef and a girl in a kimono. The final scene, in the moonlit garden, was imaginatively and romantically staged. Donizetti’s music often suggests he was thinking of Mozart, and I think in “Don Pasquale” he must have had “The Marriage of Figaro” in mind. “Figaro” also features the last act in the garden, the trick love note, the foolish aristocratic gentleman learning his lesson, the one single long, absurd day.

Grabarkewitz capitalized on the sumptuous surroundings of the Riviera Theatre. Occasionally an aria or duet turns into a vaudeville number – the curtain comes down, and the singers perform in front of it. One duet between Pasquale and Malatesta needed little more than bowler hats to become a Laurel and Hardy routine.

“Don Pasquale,” in Italian with English surtitles, will be performed at 8 p.m. today and Saturday, and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda.

Opera Review

Don Pasquale

Presented by Nickel City Opera Friday night, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda. Tickets are $24-$59. Call 692-2413 or visit