Don Pasquale (Royal Opera) – Review – Live Stream
By Eve Luddington, October 2019
The marvellous Bryn Terfel plays the lead in the Royal Opera’s staging of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, a co-production with Paris Opera, live-streamed from Covent Garden.
The sharp-edged tale, penned by Donizetti and Giovanni Ruffini and first performed in 1843, is an example of Opera Buffa, a farcical comedy. In this one, most of the fun is at the expense of the eponymous hero.
Don Pasquale discovers that his nephew, Ernesto, whom he’s raised, intends to marry the impoverished young widow, Norina. Outraged, he decides to get married himself, produce a new heir and disinherit his nephew, whom he throws out of home.
Dr Malatesta promises to help the rich, ageing bachelor but actually plots with the lovers to teach Don Pasquale a lesson. He finds a bride for his patient who, he asserts, is his own sister, Sorfina. But the meek, veiled young lady who delights Don Pasquale is Norina in disguise, and the notary who witnesses the wedding, a fake. As soon as they are ‘married’, the ‘bride’ vows to teach Don Pasquale manners, while demanding new clothes, jewellery, furniture – and a young gallant to accompany her in the evenings.
Norina ensures that Don Pasquale discovers a note to Sorfina from a secret lover arranging an assignation. It’s the last straw for him; he determines to confront the couple and banish his ‘wife’. Of course, all the trickery is revealed in the end, and the foolish bachelor is told, ‘You must be soft in the head if you marry at your age.’ That’s the rather cruel lesson Malatesta and the lovers have taught him.
Gaeto Donizetti’s music is rich and tuneful with brilliant arias and soaring duets. Courtesy of the Screen Director, Patti Marr, cinema audiences are treated to close-ups of the orchestra during the overture. Evelino Pido, the Conductor, almost dances as he guides the musicians through the rapid mood changes of the score, infecting us with his enthusiasm. Then it’s time for curtain-up on Act One.
“Elements which sit uneasily”
Director of this production, Damieno Michieletto, sets it in the present-day and, in what for me is a misguided attempt to give a 21st century interpretation, injects psychological elements which sit uneasily in this farcical comedy.
Michieletto presents Don Pasquale as a bachelor who has never really grown up and keeps his house exactly as it was when he was a child although, according to the libretto, he’s raised his nephew here. There are fleeting appearances of his loving mother and himself as a child, and a group of small, (embarrassed-looking) children as he remembers happier times.
Paolo Fantin’s design shows the basic outline of a roof and floor. The house interior, which rotates, is fussy: a bathroom, bedroom with single bed, living room, kitchen and garage separated by doors but no walls. It’s initially quite messy, quite shabby, and, strangely, gives no hint of Don Pasquale’s wealth. After the sham wedding, and the interval, Norina’s impact and lavish spending are evidenced by new, designer furnishings; and the old banger in the garage has been replaced by a limo. The visual contrast works well in itself but the first set, particularly, seems overdone.
Some of the action is filmed on stage and projected onto a vast screen. This may benefit live theatre audiences seated far from the stage but doesn’t really have dramatic justification. Like the puppets which appear in one scene, it seems gimmicky.
The performers, as you would expect from Royal Opera stars, are excellent. Their voices blend beautifully, and their Bel Canto is thrilling.
Bryn Terfel is an exceptional performer. His bass-baritone voice is rich, resonant and emotive; his facial expressions convey every nuanced feeling of the gullible Don Pasquale who falls hook, line and sinker for a nasty deception. Terfel wrings the comedy out of every possible situation. His aria, ‘I am bubbling with rage’, sung as his old furniture is removed, raises laughter and pity. And, from that point in the action, he becomes a pitiful figure who had my wholehearted sympathy.
“Relishes his role”
Olga Peretyatko, a Russian soprano with a crystal-clear, soaring voice, plays the glamour-seeking Norina of this production. She’s feisty; perfect as the wily, spirited woman who deceives Don Pasquale – but I was at a loss to see why she’s attracted to Ernesto who’s characterised as a slow-witted, guileless chap who takes his teddy bear everywhere. Ioan Hotea does his best and sings beautifully but is given little chance to appeal as a romantic. He’s even placed off-stage for his main aria, ‘How beautiful is the night in spring.’
Markus Werba relishes his role as the scheming Dr. Malateste, a debonair flirt. In fact, this Malateste is far more suited to a relationship with Norina than is Ernesto.
I feel ambivalent about the production. In seeking to modernise and psychologise, I think the director has darkened the story and lost some of its charm and comedy. But the singing, music and orchestral playing shine through and make this Don Pasquale well worth seeing.
images: Clive Barda