NYC’s Underworld Productions Opera Presents ‘Don Pasquale & His Trophy Wife’

There’s no fool like an old fool. “Don Pasquale & His Trophy Wife,” the newest production of NYC’s Underworld Productions Opera, offers a plot variant on that eternal theme that maybe should have occurred to Donizetti when he wrote his classic 1843 opera buffa.

This ingenious re-interpretation will be presented in two site-specific locations May 22 to 24. Performances will be Tuesday, May 22 at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo NYU, 24 W. 12th Street, and Wednesday and Thursday, May 23 and 24, at Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium, 417 E. 61st Street. The work is directed by Artistic Director Gina Crusco, who is amassing much street cred as a “plot doctor” for classical operas. She re-envisions Don Pasquale not as an elderly bachelor but a married man who would throw over his aging Signora and make the beautiful, much younger Norina his “trophy wife.” Signora Pasquale disguises herself as the sham Notary to complete the deception that is played on the old man, revealing the true moral of the story in the final Rondo.

Peter Castaldi (Don Pasquale) and Amelia Watkins (Norina). Behind: Matthew Singer (Dr. Malatesta). Photo by Jonathan Slaff at Casa Italiana ZerilliMarimo.

In 1843 when Gaetano Donizetti’s comic gem was premiered, the notion of a 70 year old bachelor deciding to marry a young widow provoked outrage and hilarity. It was expected that audiences would side with a plot against Pasquale, concocted by his best friend Dr. Malatesta, which would allow the beautiful Norina to marry her lover Ernesto. In 2012, May and December matches are hardly rare. “I wanted to give modern audiences a reason to enjoy roasting Pasquale,” said Gina Crusco, Artistic Director. “Thus was born the idea that Don Pasquale is already a married man.”

Her “Don Pasquale & His Trophy Wife” is an intimate domestic drama. Attendees are invited to behave like snooping house guests, following the action into various spaces in and around Abigail Adams Smith House and Casa Italiana. Both locations offer verdant courtyards for the garden scene where Ernesto serenades Norina. Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo is a 19th century Italian-style town house. Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium, housed in one of the few 18th century buildings left in Manhattan, is a colonial-era structure with gardens, a brick terrace and gazebo. There is a parking lot conveniently available across the street.

The opera will be conducted by Domenico Boyagian, who is making his New York debut in this production, conducting a new orchestral reduction commissioned by Underworld Productions Opera from Anthony Barrese. The May 22 performance offers an intimate house-party experience at Casa Italiana, where guests will be limited to 50 and the opera will be performed with piano only.

The lead singers will be Amelia Watkins, soprano (Norina); Nils Neubert, tenor (Ernesto); Matthew Singer, baritone (Malatesta); Peter Castaldi, baritone (Don Pasquale); and Juliana Valente/Lauren Alfano (Notary). Designers are Kia Rogers (lighting), Nikki Black (set) and Edgar Cortes (costumes). Gina Crusco directs.

Underworld Productions Opera (UPO) has been recognized for innovation and excellence by Musical America’s “Year in Music 2009,” Opera News, The New York Times, and in the blogosphere (Madison Opera blog: “This is genius!”). UPO productions include four updated Mozart operas; early works by Handel, Pergolesi, and Rameau; and two premieres of new works. “Music that is first rate and with performances which could be put in any of our important opera houses,” wrote Richard Garmise in the Opera L blog about the 2011 stage premiere of “Clarence & Anita” by Ben Yarmolinsky.

gina curtain call
Gina Crusco at curtain call on first night of Cosi fan Tutte: Defining Women. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Explaining her “trophy wife” adaptation she writes, “I have attended performances of ‘Don Pasquale’ (and also performed in them) without feeling fully in on the joke. The title character is the butt of the joke, yet no real reason is provided that we the audience should side against Pasquale. Nor is a reason provided that we should favor the success of Ernesto and Norina’s love affair over the romantic hopes of Pasquale. Certainly, he is a pompous and self-deluding creature, but that is merely to say that he is human. And Ernesto is hardly sympathetic, with his penchant for freeloading, his sense of entitlement, and his sad-sack music.

“My staging attempts to give the audience a reason to side against Pasquale – in fact, two reasons. First, he is shown to be a scoundrel immediately because he casts aside his first wife simply because his fancy is struck by a younger woman who he believes he can win over with his wealth. Secondly, I give the audience a reason to root for Ernesto and Norina by introducing their love affair first, as the given of the plot. These two factors are established in a staged overture that provides the backstory of the production.”

Underworld Productions Opera maintains a Resident Artist program of training and performance opportunities for emerging singers, with workshops given by outstanding professionals such as Dr. Robert C. White, Jr. of the Met Lindemann Young Artist Program; Elena Araoz, stage director with New York City Opera; Cori Ellison, opera dramaturg; and Metropolitan Opera tenor Marcello Giordani.

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, Robert Jackson, Councilmember. This program is also made possible in part with public funds from the Fund for Creative Communities, supported by the New York State Council on the Arts and administered by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Additional funding has been provided by the Venable Foundation and Puffin Foundation. Underworld Productions Opera thanks Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, JP Morgan Chase, and the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone for an organizational grant.


Gina Crusco (Stage Director) has been praised in The New York Times for her “elegantly simple staging” and in the Italian press as “la bravissima Gina Crusco.” She served as Maestro del Coro of Teatro Lirico Sperimentale di Spoleto (Italy) for two opera seasons and on the voice faculty of New School University for nine years. She has won awards from NoMAA, Uptown Arts Stroll, Fractured Atlas, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and SPARC, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Domenico Boyagian will make his New York debut as conductor of Don Pasquale & His Trophy Wife.

Domenico Boyagian (Conductor) makes his New York debut conducting UPO’s “Don Pasquale.” Born and raised in Bologna, Italy, Mr. Boyagian has been described as “a conductor for whom the music is the sole point of standing before musicians.” In October 2011, Donald Rosenberg of the Cleveland Plain Dealer called his production of “King Roger” by Karol Szymanowski “a triumph.” In 2010 Mr. Boyagian made his Canadian debut with “La Traviata” in Toronto. He currently is Assistant Conductor of Opera Southwest, where he worked on productions of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” and “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” while recently he conducted the Opera Southwest Orchestra in Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” and “Gianni Schicchi.” Mr. Boyagian’s tenure as Music Director of the Ohio Philharmonic in Cleveland began in 2011, and in May 2012 he will make his recording debut conducting the orchestra in works by Grieg with Italian pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi. During the 2009-2010 season he was featured on the podium of the world renowned Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy.

Anthony Barrese (Orchestral reduction) is the recipient of the 2007 Georg Solti Foundation U.S. award for young conductors. He has led productions with Sarasota Opera and Opera Southwest where he is Music Director and Principal Conductor, and was Assistant Conductor of Dallas Opera in 2006-2007. In November 2008 Mr. Barrese conducted a new production of Turandot in Ascoli Piceno’s historic Teatro Ventidio Basso. In recent seasons Mr. Barrese made debuts with Boston Lyric Opera, Mercury Opera, Edmonton, DePaul Opera Theater, and France’s Opera de Massy.

Peter Castaldi (Don Pasquale) is a Paris-born baritone who was raised in Milan and finished his education in New York, where he earned a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Sarah Lawrence College, majoring in composition. Mr. Castaldi’s engagements include Gotham Chamber Opera’s production of Montsalvatge’s “El gato con botas,” directed by Moises Kaufman and Mahler’s 8th Symphony in the Sydney Opera House. Mr. Castaldi was featured in the spring of 2010 singing the title role in Verdi’s Rigoletto with Florentine Opera. In 2008 and 2009 he sang the title role of Falstaff for Opera Roanoke.

Nils Neubert, tenor (Ernesto) earned his M.A. from Columbia University, Teachers College and B.M. at The Juilliard School. He has studied at the Mozarteum, Festival de Musica Clasica in Spain, and Scuola Leonardo Da Vinci in Italy. Mr. Neubert’s awards include First Prize, 2010 Barry Alexander International Vocal Competition; Award recipient, 2010 Gerda Lissner; 2009 Friday Woodmere; and 2005 Puigcerda International Vocal Competitions. The New York Times praised his performance in Underworld Productions’ “Pygmalion” writing, .” ..his attractive tenor, beautifully controlled vibrato and amusing, flexible portrayal of ‘Pygmalion’ carried the evening.” The East Hampton Star noted his “clear, effortless high register.”

Matthew Singer, baritone (Dr. Malatesta) has performed all over the United States singing such roles as Enrico in “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Alfio in “Cavalleria Rusticana,” Tonio in “I Pagliacci,” Dr. Falke in “Die Fledermaus,” Count Almaviva in “Le Nozze di Figaro,” Danilo in “The Merry Widow,” Marcello and Schaunard in “La Boheme,” Guglielmo and Don Alfonso in “Cosi fan Tutte,” Grovesnor in “Patience,” Mr. Bluff in “The Impresario,” Yamadori in “Madame Butterfly,” Boatswain in “H.M.S. Pinafore,” Presto in “Les Mamelles des Tiresias,” as well as the title role in Rossini’s buffo opera “Il Signor Bruschino.”

Amelia Watkins, soprano (Norina) has been described in Opera News as having “a rich, glowing lyric sound destined for the heights.” She has appeared in leading venues such as the Estates Theatre (Prague), the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, Weill Hall, the Verbier Festival (Switzerland), the Gewandhaus (Germany), the National Arts Center in Ottawa, in concert in Hong Kong, and New York City Opera’s VOX contemporary opera showcase. Ms. Watkins appeared with Underworld Productions as Dafne in Handel’s “Apollo & Dafne” and created the role of Susan Hoerchner in “Clarence & Anita” by Ben Yarmolinsky.

Kia Rogers (Lighting Designer) has credits including the Off Broadway productions “Made In Heaven” at The SoHo Playhouse and “Passage through Light and Shadow” at Theatre at St. Clement’s. She is the resident lighting designer at Manhattan Theatre Source and lighting director for Estrogenius since 2007. She also designs at The Asia Society.

Nikki Black (Set Designer) has designed for “Uncle Vanya,” “Venus Observed” and “Endless Summer Nights”

at the Connelly Theatre, and “The Buddha Play” at Baruch Performing Arts. At the Prague Quadrennial in 2007 she was a Selected Exhibitor from Scenofest Competition.

Edgar Cortes (Costume Designer) comes to costume design by way of his experience as director of Edgar Cortes Dance Theater, for which he creates both choreography and costumes. He was born in Portugal and is a a graduate of National Conservatory, was awarded a scholarship to Martha Graham School in NY. He choreographed UPO’s 2010 “Pygmalion” and 2011 “Apollo & Dafne” and “Clarence & Anita.”