The Atlanta Opera will present its first-ever production of Gaetano Donizetti’s 1843 bel canto classic “Don Pasquale,” and among the many surprises awaiting Atlanta audiences will be the notion that a lavish party given by the lead character is attended by the likes of John Wayne, Eartha Kitt, Lucille Ball and Elvis Presley.
“I was looking for a different period to set it in,” says director Chuck Hudson, who originally created his inventive staging for “Don Pasquale” for the Arizona Opera in 2014. The show moves the action from early 19th-century Rome to the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1950s.
In Donizetti’s comedy, the wealthy old bachelor Don Pasquale plans to marry the much younger Norina in order to have an heir so he can cut off his rebellious young nephew, Ernesto, from his inheritance. Meanwhile, the young couple Ernesto and Norina scheme to trick the old man so they can be together.
Hudson says he saw the opera’s title character as very much in line with the character of Norma Desmond from Billy Wilder’s 1950 Hollywood classic film noir “Sunset Boulevard,” as they’re both over-the-top personalities who long to rekindle their youth and former glory. In Hudson’s production, Don Pasquale becomes an aging silent film star whose career has petered out in the era of sound and color. Act 1 is entirely in black and white, just as Pasquale’s early movies were, and then little by little, elements of color enter the scenography until the stage becomes full-blown Technicolor in Act 2.
“The whole Golden Era of Hollywood and all that color and fun came into the production,” Hudson says. “We looked at the choristers who will be singing the roles in Atlanta, and we chose different movie stars that they look like. It’s something personalized for every remount. For every production, we’ve had a different group of movie stars.”
Hudson also directed his Hollywood-set “Don Pasquale” at the Cincinnati Opera in 2015, and he will direct it again at Minnesota Opera later in 2017.
Maestro Joseph Colaneri, the current music director of the Glimmerglass Opera Festival, will conduct. Bass-baritone Burak Bilgili, last seen in Atlanta in 2016’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” returns to perform the title role, and tenor Ji-Min Park sings Ernesto, making his Atlanta Opera debut.
“I’ve played Giulietta in ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’ as a tattooed Amy Winehouse, Adina in ‘L’Elisir d’Amore’ as Marilyn Monroe and Musetta in ‘La Bohème’ as a go-go dancer in white knee-high boots,” says soprano Georgia Jarman, who will perform the role of Norina. Jarman jokes that it’s almost unusual nowadays for classic works to get classic stagings. “Usually singers come to the first day of rehearsal and say, ‘What era are we setting this in?’”
She says that updating a classic work can help make an opera more relevant to the public, but the key to success is the director’s ability to back up the staging by fleshing out the characters’ motivations with authenticity in the new setting.
“Chuck Hudson’s ideas are fantastic,” she says. “He’s clearly thought his concept through carefully. One of the great things about comedy is that it speaks to us in any century. What audiences found funny in 1843 can still make us laugh in 2017. Fast-forwarding to Hollywood just sharpens the comedy for us.”
As rehearsals progress, Jarman says she’s looking forward to developing her character in the new Hollywood context, though much of the emphasis remains on the singing. “The music is gorgeous and requires the same approach as any other bel canto piece from a technical standpoint,” she says. “I’m looking forward to discovering this particular Norina’s personality as we go along. From a visual standpoint, this era is a treasure-trove of iconic looks and familiar imagery, and of course, it’s a costumer’s dream.”
Hudson is a former apprentice and assistant to the legendary Marcel Marceau, and the director says his seven years of working closely with the renowned French physical comedian shape his approach to comedy.
“His work helps me as an opera director very much,” Hudson says. “The specificity that the singers have, the level of virtuosity that this level of singing demands, is very similar to the work that Marceau did. Every gesture has to be essential and not wasted. The other thing is the idea of universal communication. He could do the same show anywhere with no language barrier. … When music is done well, there’s something universal about it. Ultimately, I want the audience to stop needing to look at the supertitles because they understand everything that’s happening because of the specificity of the music and the movement.”
In the end, Hudson says he hopes his production will win over both traditionalists and those who are looking for something different. “The people who love bel canto music are still going to get an amazing experience at the opera,” he says, “and people who want opera to be a little bit more daring and experimental and inclusive of a little more visual art in the presentation will also enjoy it. The production supports the opera; it doesn’t overpower it.”
The Atlanta Opera’s “Don Pasquale”
8 p.m. March 25; 7:30 p.m. March 28; 8 p.m. March 31; 3 p.m. April 2. $35-$131. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org.