The ageing bachelor takes her to wife on the promise of innocence and simplicity, tricked by youngsters with plans of their own: if she proves too horrendous once installed in the marital home, 'Sofronia' can drop the pretence, show that the marriage ceremony was a fake, and leave Don Pasquale for her beloved young Ernesto.
Damiano Michieletto's new production of the opera for the Royal Opera House updates the piece. The old man's comfy old effects are replaced by achingly hip interior features by a luxuriously dressed 'Sofronia'. In reality she is Norina, and in this role the Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko is as glittering and clear-cut as the diamonds Norina favours, with a high trill to rival a songbird's.
Baritone Bryn Terfel takes a big step in his illustrious career, donning his big comedy boots and working hard at folly: we are used to a more imposing Terfel, in the heavyweight title roles of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov or as the evil Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca. Kitted out in jim-jams and a dressing gown, he is a giant version of the tiny boy soothed in his childhood bed by his mother, in an added dream sequence. She was the only woman to love him, we infer. This is one of several reasons to pity the deluded booby. And herein lies the problem with this production.
Markus Werba stands out as Malatesta, the fixer. Photo: Clive Barda
Either this Don Pasquale is a loveless figure approaching a lonely old age (with a horrid flash-forward to wheelchair in the old people's home), in which case we feel compassion. Or he is a lecherous predator on innocent younger women, in which case we recoil. But either way, we do not laugh. Especially not when Sofronia/Norina strikes him. This slap is a pivotal point in the opera, but it is not a pratfall, it is an act of cruelty.
And cruelty is the take-away from this production, sad to say. That is partly down to Terfel's superior stage presence. The rightful suitor, Ernesto, sung by Ioan Hotea, seems peevish and lazy. The scheming Malatesta, who invents Sofronia, is uncomfortably touchy-feely with Norina, although impressively sung by Austrian baritone Markus Werba. Only the fake Notary, Bryan Secombe, is out-and-out funny, nodding off on the proscenium arch.
What goes on inside that arch is just too labour-intensive with little comic return. The transformation scene did not, despite its promise, amount to much considering the work put in, and the use of film cameras and back projections in Paolo Fantin's strident design cut across the singing, the delay particularly distracting. Even more off-putting, three puppets, pupaphobics beware, stealing the scene in Terfel and Werba's tongue-twisting duet.
It was, however, a clever idea to make Norina a studio assistant, with proven skills in make-up and wardrobe, ready for her own impersonation. And the addition of a silent housekeeper (Jane Evers) gives poor Pasquale someone to moan at while she applies the Grecian 2000.
Evelino Pidò conducts the sprightly Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a score that promises more laughter than we experience, and the lightly used Royal Opera Chorus.
Don Pasquale is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Further performances: 21, 24, 26, 30 Oct; 2 Nov. The performance on Thurs 24 Oct is relayed live to cinemas across London and nationwide: click here for details. This is a co-production with the Opéra National de Paris and Teatro Massimo, Palermo
|What||Don Pasquale, Royal Opera House review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
14 Oct 19 – 02 Nov 19, seven performances; 12pm start on Sat 26 Oct
|Website||Click here for more information|