Although a touring version was seen either side of 2013, Mariame Clément’s production of Don Pasquale for Glyndebourne Festival Opera premiered in that year, and this constitutes its first revival. It is an intelligent interpretation that recognises that no matter how accomplished Donizetti’s 64th opera may be, it does present certain challenges. It may, like Il barbiere di Siviglia and Der Rosenkavalier, be the story of an ageing gentleman attempting to put himself between two young lovers. It does not, however, possess anywhere near as many twists and turns as Il barbiere or Le nozze di Figaro because the plot to thwart the antagonist is planned and executed with relatively few obstacles being thrown in the way.
As a result, in spite of music that keeps the emotional colour wheel turning, particularly in Act III, the narrative can risk losing our attention. Clément’s production, however, reveals so many details that the subtexts it highlights and ‘sub-plots’ it introduces are enough to ensure we are kept gripped from start to finish.
Julia Hansen’s excellent set consists of a revolving stage that over the course of a 360 degree rotation reveals three separate areas. Although the contents of each of these alter, they generally contain the rooms of Don Pasquale, Ernesto and Norina, and Dr Malatesta spends the Overture climbing through windows, paintings and mirrors as he journeys from one space to the next. The production actually moves the setting back in time to the eighteenth century, but the rooms feel slightly stylised rather than entirely realistic. They all seem fairly Spartan, and in each case a plain black wall rises above the height of the room to emphasise the space’s place within a larger, theatrical narrative. There are also many interesting touches such as the wallpaper pattern in each room similarly appearing on the furniture and doors.
In one of several innovations, a non-singing and non-speaking role of a servant to Don Pasquale is introduced. Entirely through silent gestures, she dotes on him from the start, proves profoundly put out by his ‘marriage’ and finally, and opportunistically, offers herself as his consolation. This works well because Clément has skilfully worked the figure into the story as it stands, rather than attempting to write an alternative one. For example, when Norina first meets Don Pasquale when disguised as Sofronia she asks Malatesta not to leave her alone. That is in the original libretto but here it is clear she is really asking for the servant, who views her with suspicion, to leave the room. Another avenue explored is the relationship between Norina and Malatesta, which is at the very least just a little flirtatious and may well signify something far more sinister. It starts with Malatesta helping to partially undress Norina and jumping in the bath with her, and ends with glances between the two at the close of ‘La moral di tutto questo’ that suggest the pair have unfinished business. Similarly, Ernesto is surrounded in his room by childish toys, which could signify a number of things.
Norina and Ernesto sing ‘Tornami a dir che m’ami’ while having a picnic, in a nod to what most of the audience have just done, with their romantic (and suggestive) pouring and stirring of each others’ tea being interrupted by Ernesto burning his hands on the teapot. During the singing of the Act II quartet the soloists step out from their surroundings to be observed by a chorus of eighteenth century theatre-goers. This works because it emphasises to the real audience that they too are suddenly witnessing the thoughts, as opposed to actions, of these characters, and over the course of Act III the chorus is used in ever more imaginative ways. Here, while singing the role of the servants that ‘Sofronia’ has introduced, they remain dressed as theatre-goers. They are consequently proclaiming the shenanigans going on all around, not as subordinates who are standing right in the centre of them, but as ‘independent’ observers. This works because it fits the specific words being sung just as well, and heightens the sense of theatricality for something that is very much designed to be entertaining and amusing.
A production such as this requires performers who know how to work with it to maintain its slickness, and who have the ability as individuals to be extremely funny. In both respects, the current cast feels just a notch down on the one assembled in 2013, but the original contingent did set an extremely high bar. The standout performance comes from Andrey Zhilikhovsky as Dr Malatesta, whose robust baritone combines with a strong ‘all-seeing’ presence. Lisette Oropesa is a spirited Norina whose soprano takes time to warm up but at its best is very good. As it conquers soaring phrases, it always maintains a mellifluous, as opposed to either a harsh or piercing, tone. Andrew Stenson initially seems a little challenged vocally as Ernesto, with the sound at the top end of his register occasionally feeling dampened, but he soon warms to the task and his performance of ‘Com’è gentil’ is extremely pleasing.
Renato Girolami has reasonable presence as Don Pasquale but he does not capture the character’s pomposity and arrogance as much as his feelings of exasperation and despair. We do end up feeling sorry for this Don Pasquale, but only because we see how thoroughly he is duped and not because we witness such a large and expectant character fall from so great a height. He has his moments, and his execution of the Act III ‘patter song’ with Zhilikhovsky’s Malatesta reveals both vocal and dramatic prowess, but some of the best comic timing actually comes from two minor characters. James Newby may have good material to work with as Clément has the Notary constantly arriving on the scene either too early or too late, but he executes each of his comic entrances very well and his facial expressions throughout his appearance are revealing. Anna-Marie Sullivan in the non-singing role of the Servant was naturally chosen in both 2013 and now for her acting ability, and delivers everything that we could wish for.
Giacomo Sagripanti conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra well, but sometimes becomes so focused on bringing out details in the score that on such occasions we are more likely to feel a sense of hesitancy than exuberance. Nevertheless, much fine playing emanates from the pit, and the standard in Act III is particularly strong. This is a revival that may well get slicker and funnier with every performance as the principals gain more idea of exactly how their expressions and gestures come across to a live audience.
The original 2013 festival production, featuring Alessandro Corbelli as Don Pasquale and Danielle de Niese as Norina, is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on the Opus Arte label.