An old man, cheated by both the man he thought was his best friend and the nephew he has raised as a son. Not exactly politically correct, is it? Nor – for 21st century sensibilities – the natural stuff of comedy.
So how do you make the story (and it’s one which stretches back far beyond Jacobean drama, the commedia dell'arte tradition right to Plautus and Menander) palatable to a modern audience? And that’s allowing for the effect of one of Donizetti’s most magical scores.
Director William Oldroyd’s solution is to present the title character of Don Pasquale himself as an egoist any opera or concert-goer will instantly recognise. We’re in the early 20th century, when the man wielding the baton was fast emerging as a personality to rival even the most full-throated prima donna or primo uomo.
As the overture begins, Keel Watson as Pasquale is already claiming the limelight, a conductor with mannerisms with both the instrumentalists in the pit and us, the audience, required to follow his beat. He’s just asking to come a cropper.
Malatesta (Owen Gilhooly) then becomes his agent and Norina (Mary O’Sullivan) a singer from another theatre. It all holds together very nicely in this production which was first seen a year ago at Sadler’s Wells, thanks to David Parry’s witty English translation, one which both makes grammatical sense and fits the music comfortably, and to Agnes Treplin’s flexible set, which has just the right air of disproportion suggesting the artificiality of theatrical life.
The singing is very good, with Nicholas Sharratt a very fine Ernesto, making much of both his lyrical and high-soaring arias and the ravishing duet with Norina in the second scene of the third act. O’Sullivan has also a voice which copes effortlessly with the mischief of her opening cavatina and the later ensembles.
Romani (and Parry)’s tongue-twister patter holds no terror for Gilhooly, a Malatesta with style as well as skills. Watson’s dark baritone allied to an expressive face and great acting abilities makes one see him as a Falstaff for the future or even a more than usually dangerous Iago. Dominic Wheeler conducts with panache as well as delicacy.