Wall Street Journal online, March 5, 2010

'Don Pasquale' Arias Titillate

Berlin: For many years after the collapse of Communism, East Berlin's second opera house, the Komische Oper, looked doomed. The company, founded just after World War II by Walter Felsenstein, the father of modern opera direction, seemed barely to make it past the city's annual round of budget cuts. Without a modern stage, like the one at West Berlin's Deutsche Oper, or a musical celebrity like Daniel Barenboim, music director at East Berlin's Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the Komische Oper, which traditionally stages all its works in German, was thought to be a luxury that cash-strapped Berlin just couldn't afford. How times have changed.

Under the stewardship of Andreas Homoki, general director since 2002, the Komische Oper has become one of the city's most acclaimed cultural institutions, while Berlin's other two opera houses struggle with personnel or infrastructure problems. By bringing in young directors from around the world, Mr. Homoki, 50 years old, has lent a cosmopolitan flair to Felsenstein's original prescription of emphasizing the stage-worthiness of opera productions.

Right now, there is probably no opera company in Germany that balances theatricality and musicality with the consistency of the Komische Oper, and a new production of Donizetti's comic ditty, "Don Pasquale," shows just how rewarding this holistic approach can be.

A bel canto standard, "Don Pasquale" is the musical equivalent of meringue, with a confusing plot of little purpose other than to bind sweet, gorgeous arias. Bel canto, with its limited dramatic possibilities, never won a place in the Komische Oper of Felsenstein; this is the first time the opera has been performed here since the company's second season in 1948.

Until July 15

As staged by Dutch director Jetske Mijnssen, a company regular since the 2004/05 season, "Don Pasquale" has gotten a mind-bending makeover. Ms. Mijnssen fleshes out the evening with lots of actual flesh, and her effective combination of simple slapstick and frank sexuality jump-starts the moribund farce back to life.

I daresay this may be the first time "Don Pasquale" has gotten laughs with the help of both a drag queen (played by baritone Ingo Witzke) and a sex toy. I mean real laughs -- not the polite tittering of bored audiences waiting for the next soaring aria. Though the production has those, too, thanks to Christiane Karg, who plays the heroine Norina. Ms Karg, who will alternate in the role with Maureen McKay, makes an operatic hole-in-one, as a screwball comedienne and musical powerhouse.

óJ. S. Marcus