16 Oct 2019

Donizetti's Don Pasquale packs a psychological punch at the ROH

Is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale a charming comedy with a satirical punch, or a sharp psychological study of the irresolvable conflicts of human existence?

Old and young, rich and poor, spendthrift and miser, dreamer and realist: the opera, through the interventions of Dr Malatesta, tells us, it seems, that such discords can be reconciled. Or does it? In his new production at the Royal Opera House (shared with Paris and Palermo), director Damiano Michieletto suggests that Malatesta’s ‘magic’ is just that: a fantasy happy ending at odds with realities of human life.

Michieletto and his design team (sets, Paolo Fantin; costumes, Agostino Cavalca; lighting, Alessandro Carletti) oppose two worlds, past and present, to illustrate internal and external divisions. This Don Pasquale lives a nostalgic dream of times past. His house is an iconographical relic of his childhood. A sepia photograph of his mother rests affectionately on a bed-side table; his living room and kitchen celebrate 1950s design, and Pasquale’s frugality; family heirlooms - a grandfather clock and nineteenth-century landscape painting - evoke the spirit of history. At times, Pasquale slips back into wistful memories: an unhealthy yellow-green tint bathes the stage as ‘ghosts’ of his boyhood self enter, and perch on Pasquale’s knee, or playfully blow out the candles on a birthday cake.

DP Act 1 set.jpg Olga Peretyatko as Norina, Bryn Terfel as Don Pasquale and Markus Werba as Malatesta. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

However, the fragility of Pasquale’s nostalgic dreaming is exposed by the neon strip lights which form a cruelly bright cat’s-cradle roof above Fantin’s sparse revolving set. The latter is littered with doors unconnected to any walls which might prevent the fantasy from falling down. When Pasquale starts to think of the future - if his recalcitrant nephew won’t obey his instructions, and marry as Pasquale commands, then he will disinherit the sulky spendthrift and take a young bride himself to ensure a brood of heirs to prevent Ernesto getting his hands of the family fortune - then disaster is inevitable.

Markus Werba as Malatesta.jpg Markus Werba as Malatesta Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Malatesta proposes his sister, the virginal ‘Sofronia’, fresh out of the convent, as a suitable marriage match, and Pasquale is delighted. But, when his bashful bride morphs into a reckless fortune-hunter who plans to bling-up his house, spend his money on fast cars and fancy frocks, and dash around town with a mystery lover while he’s left lounging alone on his new sofa, staring at his minimalist décor, he is less thrilled. The decorators arrive and begin dismantling his home. In desperation, Pasquale clings to his grandfather clock, enmeshed in the plastic sheeting which condemns his past to history. It’s an image of pathos, whatever Pasquale’s flaws.

Michieletto emphasises the cruelty inflicted upon Don Pasquale by Norina and Malatesta, and if this doesn’t dampen the innate comedy then this is in no small part due to the wily acting of Bryn Terfel as the lecherous old Pasquale. There’s a touch of Terfel’s Falstaff in Don Pasquale’s lustful, deluded, anticipation of the bliss that awaits him: his housekeeper dyes his hair, he discards his grubby pyjamas and crams his corset-restrained belly into his ‘smart’ trousers, pulling up the zip with a playful whoop. Terfel manages the transformation from misanthropic miser to would-be Romeo, and later to despairing dupe, will enormous skill - and fine judgement of the details that will tell. His baritone may have lost some of its smoothness and warmth, but it’s a ‘human’ voice that conveys feelings directly and with sincerity - just what’s needed here. And, Terfel makes sure that the text does its work too, enunciating the Italian with expressive nuance.

OP and Ioan Hotea as Ernesto.jpgOlga Peretyatko as Norina and Ioan Hotea as Ernesto. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Terfel was equalled, perhaps eclipsed, by Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko, making a superb Royal Opera debut as a hard-hearted, on-the-make Norina. The gold-digger shoves aside the dull patina of Pasquale’s past with a blast of colour and light. We are first introduced to Norina in her workplace: a fashion photographer’s studio, where she’s a dresser. The clothes-rail of couture, the flashing cameras and the posing models embody her own dreams of fame and fortune - the latter emphasised by projected video images which also reinforce her role-playing insincerity. Peretyatko has natural comic flair which helped to keep our sympathies in good balance, though the famous slap which she dishes out to her disgruntled husband in Act 3 seemed unnecessarily vicious. Technically, she was immaculate, breezing through the coloratura and demonstrating how to trill with delicious delicacy. Her soprano had just the right sharpness of edge as it rose, to convey Norina’s ruthlessness.

Romanian tenor Ioan Hotea struggled a little with some of the higher reaches of Donizetti’s music for Ernesto, though the final duet for Norina and Ernesto was well-sung. But, with Michieletto seemingly disinterested in Ernesto’s romantic dreams, it wasn’t clear what the minx would see in this teddy-bear clutching moocher, who with the help of Pasquale’s put-upon, chain-smoking housekeeper, when disinherited and evicted, douses Pasquale’s precious classic car with oil. One could only wonder what the old man had done to deserve such punishment and payback.

BT with puppet.jpg Bryn Terfel as Pasquale, holding a puppet of Norina. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Markus Werber is a suave, handsome schemer - though not necessarily a convincing ‘doctor’ - and equals Terfel for panache in their patter duet: all the more impressive as they have to manipulate puppets while scooting through the syllables - and a neat suggestion that Pasquale is imagining taking back control while we can see that it’s Malatesta who is really pulling the strings. The puppets are Michieletto’s solution to Donizetti’s failure to really integrate the chorus, who don’t appear until late in the day, and three puppeteers kept us entertained when Pasquale’s servants reflected on his misfortunes. In the pit, Evelino Pidò led a vibrant and well-paced account of the score.

Only the ending seemed a false note. The deception revealed, the humiliated but humbled Don Pasquale forgives everyone and gives a green light to Norina and Ernesto’s marriage; he recognises that although Malatesta has tricked him, the trials of his pseudo-marriage have in fact saved him from his own stubbornness and the very real disaster that would have ensued had he actually entered into wedlock with a younger woman. Michieletto eschews any such happy ending. Here, Pasquale is consigned to a wheelchair and packed off to a nursing home. An unnecessarily callous final act of cruelty? But, he has one consolation: he’s still got the keys to the house.

Claire Seymour

Donizetti: Don Pasquale

Don Pasquale - Bryn Terfel, Norina - Olga Peretyatko, Ernesto - Ioan Hotea, Doctor Malatesta - Markus Werba, Notary - Bryan Secombe, Actors (Sam Alan, Ashley Bain, Josh Cavendish, Peter Cooney, Jerome Dowling, Jane Eyers, Judith Georgi, Jamal Low, Lockhart Ogilvie, Jeremiah Olusola); Director - Damiano Michieletto, Conductor - Evelino Pidò, Set designer - Paolo Fantin, Costume designer - Agostino Cavalca, Lighting designer - Alessandro Carletti, Video designers - rocafilm, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Monday 14th October 2019.