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 savage elements.
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 a street.
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.
- Mark Valencia