Laughs with a conscience from Donizetti’s comic tale at Covent Garden.
A harmless bit of froth, or a darker parable about the perils of getting old? In Damiano Michieletto’s staging of Donizetti’s comic masterpiece, which returns to The Royal Opera for the first time since it was unveiled to mixed reviews in 2019, the emphasis tends to be on the latter. Opting for a modern dress production allows the characters to become all too real, making them far easier for an audience to relate to than if it was set at the time of its composition. Those leaning to the ‘harmless bit of froth’ end of the spectrum have pointed their finger at the Italian director, claiming his version is too brutal, and lacks humour and compassion – surely we’re supposed to laugh with Pasquale rather than at him?
Possibly – but in the same week we learned of a pensioner riding on a bus all day just to keep warm because they couldn’t afford heating, this cautionary tale of how society treats its elders became all too prescient. Michieletto pulls no punches, and within Paolo Fantin’s ingenious revolving skeletal sets, directs a no holds barred account of the work, that fizzes from the start. Those expecting a laugh out loud evening of comic japes may have felt short changed, but Michieletto forces his audience to think about the characters, their motivations, and the outcomes of the decisions they take. That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of hilarious moments: there were – but we were never allowed to forget the darker undercurrents.
With a cinematic sweep, not surprising given most of the action (expertly revived by Daniel Dooner) took place on what appeared to be a movie set – Norina as makeup artist, a green screen used to convincing effect – the staging hurtles along brimming with energy as the often absurd plot unfurls. The cast were new to the roles in this staging, and for the most part gave telling performances, both musically and dramatically.
“…a no holds barred account of the work, that fizzes from the start”
In the title role Lucio Gallo was the epitome of an elderly roué, believing a spot of hair dye would help the years fall away, and in the process make him more appealing to his young bride. After a slightly gruff start he relaxed into the role, sang with appropriate bite where required, and was magnificent in the third act patter duet with the scheming Dr Malatesta, mellifluously voiced by the young Polish baritone Andrzej Filończyk.
Pretty Yende was a delightful Norina, although her naturally sunny disposition lent itself better to the ingenue bride, rather than the shrew she turns into once she’s married Pasquale. One never really believed she could be the bride from hell, but she exuded the right balance of haughty behaviour and outright loathing for her husband, and sang stunningly well, especially in her duets with her thwarted lover, Ernesto. To begin with Basque tenor Xabier Anduaga sounded as though he was auditioning for the role of Radames – nerves maybe, or just trying to gauge the size of the house – but he soon settled down and produced some ravishing mezza voce singing and was delicate and affecting. He’s a superb addition to the roster of bel canto tenors, and we hope he returns soon.
Although she did not sing a note all night, Jane Evers gave a meticulous performance as Pasquale’s housekeeper. Never scene-stealing, she was as integral to the success of this revival as the singers were. In the pit Giacomo Sagripanti led an effervescent account of the work, never laboured, but always in keeping with the spirit of the work. On a couple of occasions he let the orchestra drown the singers, but this will no doubt settle down in the run.
Bryn Terfel takes over the title role from 12 May, and Zuzana Marková sings Norina.
• Further details of future performances can be found here.