Donizetti’s Don Pasquale was an instant success at its premiere in the mid-19th century, and has remained one of the more popular works of the comic Donizetti canon, for the music has great charm and invention, and offers super opportunities for the four principals who carry most of the action. Rather as with Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte, modern-day sensibilities can introduce a distinctly bitter taste to proceedings, for the younger characters can be seen to be premeditatedly ganging-up on the elderly Don Pasquale, his own misguided, manipulative and vengeful side notwithstanding. The characters do outline the morals of the story at the end. Some of the best comedy is often or always at someone’s expense and that the darker side of human nature shown should be tempered with some emotional truth. Critical, therefore, to the success of any performance is whether this latter element emerges with enough force to provide that balance. The pivotal moment here is the moment where Norina slaps Don Pasquale about the face in the early stages of the third Act – a shocking juncture that also suspends the musical action. Here you need to feel a sense of outrage for him but simultaneously note that she has misgivings about her actions and some sympathy for him. In Damiano Micheletto’s staging we get this twice. Yes, twice. For during the scene where the ‘servants’ comment on the antics within the Pasquale household we are treated to a reprise of the moment using ventriloquist puppets costumed as the principals, the whole projected in magnification onto a back screen. With the puppets you hear the slap; it is funnier and far more disturbing than the ‘real’ version where the audible element of the brief assault is muted (Norina wears gloves) and there is greater reliance on the music for the emotional steer. Elsewhere there are other good directorial touches such as some slapstick business as Don Pasquale dresses to make himself look younger.
The idea of Norina as a wannabe ‘luvvie’ working in a rather more menial role for a company producing promotional fashion films works too, much aided by Olga Peretyatko’s winsomely knowing facial expressions even whilst singing the florid music. Similarly, the re- designed Pasquale residence depicted as a show-home for the aspirational is a clever touch. Paolo Fantin’s fluid, stylised wall-free sets detail the environment and its transformation well, with a nice coup de théâtre at the opening of the third Act. Alas, the use of bright, focussed lights on the many reflective materials used such as glass, polished chrome and mirrors means that some in the audience will find themselves blinded by the glare on occasions.
Musically, the evening is in the deft hands of Evelino Pidò, who once again demonstrates his understanding of Donizetti’s style, musical wit and sensitivity. The vivacious moments of the score have infectious lightness and sprung variations of pace whilst the more emotionally laden melodies get their due. This is evident from the Overture where autumnally mellow cellos, bassoon, horns and deliciously watery trumpets in the slow music contrast with the brilliance of the dance-like tunes.
Vocally, the evening is a tad mixed. Bryn Terfel, in sappy voice and ever attentive to colouring and enunciation of words, gives an interesting interpretation of Don Pasquale; not always likeable as a character but full of human foible. Best is the moment of uncomprehending bewilderment just post Norina’s slap – wonderfully and movingly sung. The vital ebullience of the patter singing of the Pasquale Malatesta duet is certainly there too. One suspects this portrayal will develop fascinatingly as his Falstaff did. As aforementioned, Olga Peretyatko’s Norina is comically engaging, although the genuine sensitivity of the lady doesn’t emerge as strongly as it could. Vocally she is more than up to the showy technical coloratura challenges of the role, her relaxed, chirpy, bright soprano sounding effortlessly well in the auditorium in an auspicious house debut. Her rather geeky Ernesto, the Romanian tenor Ioan Hotea is vocally better suited to the earlier, more desolate moments of his journey than the comic interruption of the Act Two finale or the melting lyricism of his serenade. Unfairly, he isn’t helped by having to sing the latter offstage. Perhaps first-night nerves led him to sound slightly stretched. Markus Werba’s Malatesta is curiously restrained for the organiser of the charade, and his over-emphatic delivery sometimes made the vocal line sound very choppy at times. It’s an attractive and virile voice, but overall more suavity and presence are needed. The chorus were good in their brief moments as was Bryan Secombe’s Notary cameo.
- Further performances on 18, 21, 24, 26 (mat), 30 October and 2 November