It’s funny that both Rossini and Donizetti, the leading Italian opera composers of the early nineteenth century, should be well known today primarily for their comic operas rather than their far more extensive forays into the genre of the opera seria.
Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, L’Elisir d’Amore and Don Pasquale, the latter currently being performed by the Royal Opera in a production borrowed from Florence, are only half of the story as far as these composers go.
Opera companies are rarely brave enough to schedule Rossini’s Maometto Secondo, for example, despite the musical treasure-trove which lies in this canon of neglected operas. The Royal Opera must have thought it was playing a safe card by scheduling two war-horses this season – Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, to be seen in the Spring, and the current production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.
Alas, the latter has proved that an opera buffa is far from an easy thing to present convincingly, and the audience was left with a largely lacklustre evening, partly alleviated by the inevitable vocal finesse of the one star name, Juan Diego Flórez. Don Pasquale should sparkle and shine, but in the hands of the presently disgruntled director Jonathan Miller, this was one of the stodgiest evenings of the current season.
The opera tells of how Doctor Malatesta manages to trick his friend Don Pasquale into allowing his nephew Ernesto to marry the girl he loves (Norina), and the score brims with potentially show-stopping numbers, not least the brilliant concertato finales which Donizetti did so much to develop in his lifetime. Yet by setting the opera in a doll’s house and hiding his singers behind excessive amounts of make-up and material, Miller dehumanised the drama. We were left not caring what was going on, or what the characters were feeling – fairly standard requirements of opera, you would think.
Although Isabella Bywater’s designs were handsome enough, they were so lavish that the set upstaged the singers. Furthermore, by having so many small rooms in the doll’s house, the singers’ voices were muffled, leaving all but Flórez struggling to project into the huge opera house. What a relief, in the opera’s dying moments, when the characters stepped out of the set and came front of stage – suddenly the singing was audible!
Too late, however, to save a pedestrian evening. Much of the blame must go to Bruno Campanella’s turgid conducting, which did occasionally bring out some of the beautiful woodwind textures, for example, but nearly always at the expense of the energy of the performance. The orchestra was barely going through the moves, and the chorus was rarely able to produce a unified sound.
Ernesto was brilliantly played by Flórez. His astoundingly beautiful voice is always a treat to encounter, and this is undoubtedly his repertoire, even when the accompaniment is as uninspiring as on this occasion. He was partnered by Tatiana Lisnic, making her Royal Opera debut as Norina. Lisnic was pretty enough, and partially proved her ability to stand up to the demands of the bel canto, but was far from ideally cast vocally.
Two stalwarts did their best to contribute to the ensemble – largely unsuccessfully, however. Simone Alaimo ought to have been ideal as Pasquale, but his voice rarely carried beyond the orchestra pit, and Alessandro Corbelli’s Malatesta was far from the high standard he showed in Glyndebourne’s Gianni Schicchi this Summer. They both acted well, but seemed constrained by the set and lack of bounce from Maestro Campanella. Not one of the great Covent Garden productions.