The canopy’s up, the canapés are out and those confounded
peacocks are in full cry. Our crazy British weather may not have made up its
mind yet but at Opera Holland Park they have: it’s day one of summer.
This year’s programme has a strong Italian flavour, more
so even than usual, and Donizetti’s fizzing opera buffa was
bound to make a fine benvenuto to the 2011 season. So it
proves, even though Italy itself is no more than a vestigial presence in
designer Colin Richmond’s windswept English coastal esplanade where cranky old
Don Pasquale’s guano-covered kiosk (‘La casa del Fish-‘n’-Chips’) defies the
The septuagenarian Don (Donald Maxwell) fancies himself
the ladies’ man, and his roving eye has landed on the nubile Norina. If only
she wasn’t betrothed to another: Ernesto, his own impecunious nephew. Enlightenment of a sort arrives courtesy of
the wily Doctor Malatesta, a meddlesome master of ceremonies whose duplicitous
plotting unleashes the unlikeliest mistaken-identity crisis in all opera (which
is saying something).
Don Pasquale is hardly subtle stuff –
it’s a riot of sunny vocal runs over dainty orchestration – so a seaside
concept ought to harmonise well with its vulgar frivolity. However, Stephen
Barlow resists the temptation to indulge in saucy-postcard-itis and directs
instead with a humour built of nods, winks and whimsy. It’s a reasonably
entertaining approach, but at times I did find myself willing him to liven
things up with a bit of ‘oo-er missus’. Moreover, some of Barlow’s comedy sits
uncomfortably on the wide, shallow Holland Park stage: the Panavision frame
means that incidental business and sight gags tend to occur in different visual
fields from the main focal action, to the detriment of both.
Vocal balance is compromised by the lack of a resonant
wall behind the singers on Richmond’s open set, so the sound goes where it
will. Only the magnificent Colin Lee tames the acoustic, but then again he is
one of the leading bel canto tenors on the circuit so that’s
not a surprise. Lee’s Act Two lament, ‘Cercherò lontana’, is the evening’s highlight by
Donald Maxwell is buffo of manner but
not of voice, and Pasquale’s patter fails to cut through the orchestration.
However, the veteran bass-baritone has always been blest with a warm stage
presence, and his ‘buck-and-wing’ routine alongside Richard Burkhard’s
characterful Malatesta is a hoot. Norina (part-ingénue,
part-lover, part-trickster) is a more difficult role to bring off, yet Majella
Cullagh pitches the humour dead centre and works the audience very winningly. Her
voice lacks an ounce or two of tonal beauty but it blends superbly with Lee’s
in their great duet, ‘Tornami
a dir che m'ami’.
The City of London Sinfonia and the Opera Holland Park
Chorus excel under the baton of Richard Bonynge, the master of bel
canto who has been conducting this repertoire (and probably this
opera) for more than half a century. I particularly appreciated the Mariachi
edge Bonynge drew from the trumpet solo during the Act Two Prelude. This is a
jolly Don Pasquale: it has no pretentions beyond a determination
to supply an evening of good-natured operatic fun – and it delivers.