In these days of trophy wives, the idea of an elderly man taking a young bride doesn't easily generate comic mileage. But opera-goers in the 19th century apparently thought such pairings were hilarious.
Like Rossini's The Barber of Seville a couple decades earlier and Verdi's Falstaff several decades later, Donizetti's Don Pasquale takes good-natured delight in presenting the comeuppance of a randy, pompous senior citizen.
Opera Vivente's production of Don Pasquale at Emmanuel Episcopal Church makes a determined effort to extract laughs from the situations faced by the four characters at the heart of the action, played out in Nora Shaw's vibrant costumes on Anthea Smith's cutely cartoonish set.
Director John Bowen has his energetic, well-synchronized cast practically begging for laughs with broad gestures, facial mugging and at least one grand exit even more extravagant than Norma Shearer's in the closing frames of The Women.
Ultimately, this charming opera buffa becomes a little too opera buffoonish. Sure, Don Pasquale isn't Don Giovanni, but it isn't exactly Don Benny Hill, either.
If the staging often seemed too stagy on Thursday, the lead singers proved to be reliable, imaginative outlets for Donizetti's unending supply of felicitous melodies. The original Italian text obviously fits those melodies more deftly than any English translation could (Opera Vivente is using an effective one by Phyllis Mead), but the vocal lines still soared and cavorted amiably.
Thom King, in the title role of the rich old bachelor, had fun with the words and maintained clarity of articulation even at rapid-patter speed. His tone was a little limited in color, but evenly, sturdily projected.
As Ernesto, Pasquale's nephew who would rather lose his inheritance than marry a woman he doesn't love, Vijay Joshua Ghosh shaped many a charming phrase, especially in the Act 3 serenade and duet. His nice-sized tenor could benefit from further polishing around the edges, but its warm patina is already quite promising.
With bursts of curls framing her head, Susan Wheeler looked like the heroine of a vaudeville skit and had a field day portraying Norina, the young widow who hoodwinks Pasquale in a scheme intended to unite her with Ernesto. The soprano's bright voice and attentiveness to nuances of text and melodic outline served the score admirably.
As Dr. Malatesta, the perpetrator of that matchmaking scheme, Joshua Saxon offered suave vocalism. There was a light sparkle in his tone, an easy flow to his phrasing, even in the tongue-twisting Act 3 duet with King.
Richard Weinberg sang his few lines as the fake notary adequately. The small chorus had difficulty producing a cohesive sound and, as backup for Ghosh's offstage serenade, keeping time.
There was plenty of drive and sufficient rhythmic flexibility from conductor Aaron Sherber. Too bad he wasn't working with the more reliable instrumentalists that the Municipal Opera of Baltimore enjoyed in its recent production of Carmen. This group got off to a ragged start in the overture and never quite coalesced.
What: Opera Vivente presents Donizetti's Don Pasquale
Where: Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St.
When: 8 tonight, 3 p.m. tomorrow
Admission: $15 and $20