Don Pasquale, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, September 2010Posted on 13 September 2010
A wealthy older bachelor decides to marry a young wife. What a bad idea — as Chaucer tells us in the Merchant’s Tale, where the young wife gets up to some monkey business in a pear tree. Add to the plot a nephew who wants to marry a woman not of the older man’s choosing, and you have the basis for Ben Johnson’s Silent Woman, a play in which the wealthy fellow will cut his nephew off if he marries his intended. The idea is to trick him into accepting his nephew’s marriage while giving up his own intentions, and that’s the basis for this glorious opera by Donizetti.
Its libretto — by Donizetti and Giovanni Ruffini — is based on an earlier text by Angelo Anelli for Stefano Pavesi’s opera Ser Mercantonio, and that in turn was based on Ben Johnson’s play. Don Pasquale is the name of the older man, Ernesto is his nephew, and the trick is that Ernesto’s fiancée — a pretty widow named Norina — is ready to play the part of the demure wife in a fake wedding with Pasquale, and then torment him beyond endurance. All this is cleverly contrived by Pasquale’s ‘friend’ Doctor Malatesta.
Johnson’s play The Silent Woman is also the basis for Richard Strauss’s little-performed opera Die schweigsame Frau, but the Donizetti is much easier to appreciate. It’s wonderful fun, and this Jonathan Miller production is a delight, with charming designs by Isabella Bywater showing us three floors of Don Pasquale’s house, along with tired servants who do his bidding simply because it pays their wages. When Norina moves in as the new, ostensibly demure wife, all sorts of people are hired and pandemonium reigns. Miller has put in some very clever dumb shows, which were brilliantly acted, and Jacques Imbrailo as Pasquale’s friend Doctor Malatesta was particularly good here, as was Bryan Secombe in the small part of the notary — I loved his pointed nose.
Imbrailo’s singing had great strength and charm, and Paolo Gavanelli gave us a boldly acted and well-nuanced portrait of the pig-headed Pasquale, a comic character, but one for whom we could still feel sympathy. Iride Martinez gave us a strongly sung Norina, and Barry Banks was an effete Ernesto with a lovely Rossini tenor voice.
Conducting by Evelino Pido, an excellent replacement for the late Charles Mackerras, gave a thrill to the overture before launching into some lyrical moments, and pacing things very well.
Performances continue until September 21.