Don Pasquale, Opera Holland Park, OHP, June 2011

Don Pasquale is Donizetti’s sixty-fourth opera, and one of his most successful. The title character is a wealthy but crotchety older man who disapproves of the marital choice of his nephew Ernesto. This young man wants to marry the high-spirited, youthful widow, Norina, so Pasquale has decided to take a young wife for himself, and disinherit Ernesto.

Dr. Malatesta and Don Pasquale, all photos Fritz Curzon

The production by Stephen Barlow sets the action in modern dress, complete with the odd mobile phone, and seems to portray Don P as the owner of a run-down, seaside fish and chip shop in England. Dr. Malatesta, friend to both Pasquale and Ernesto, sets him up with his “sister”, really Norina in disguise, and she goes to town spending his money and driving him crazy so that he’ll give up the idea of marriage, and accept Norina as his nephew’s new wife. The opera is partly based on Ben Johnson’s play The Silent Woman. But I was a bit perplexed as to how the owner of a fish and chip shop would have the money to hire masses of new servants in a brand new establishment, and found Norina’s demand that, “I want a Ferrari in the garage by tomorrow” a bit over the top. Yes, I’m sure it was meant to be that way, and the tackiness of her costume in Act III surely owes something to Covent Garden’s recent Anna Nicole, but in that opera the old man really was extremely wealthy, not the owner of a seafront fish and chip shop. I’m afraid I found it all a bit lacking in coherence, and not half as good as Stephen Barlow’s Don Giovanni for OHP last year.

Norina in Act III

Musically however, Richard Bonynge, conducting the City of London Sinfonia, gave a fine account of Donizetti’s delightful score, and was hugely supportive of the singers, particularly during the quartet in Act II. Donald Maxwell held the stage well as Pasquale, giving a strong rendering of the part — he’s always so good, even in secondary roles. And Colin Lee as Ernesto was superb — his soliloquy at the start of Act II was simply wonderful. This is a tenor who took over from Juan Diego Flores at Covent Garden two years ago as Almaviva in Il Barbieri and was the tenor in Covent Garden’s Turco last year — Holland Park did extremely well to get him. Richard Burkhard sang well as Dr. Malatesta, though I would have preferred a stronger stage presence. The fast duet between Malatesta and Pasquale in Act III was partly done as a music hall comedy routine between the two, with a walking stick and umbrella, but it went inevitably a little slowly, particularly at the point when Burkhard sang while standing on one leg, balancing an umbrella on his other foot — a quite remarkable feat! Norina was sung by Majella Cullagh, who did well as Queen Elizabeth I in Holland Park’s Roberto Devereux last year, but seemed mis-cast in the role of the pretty and flirtatious young widow. Her voice lacked the strength for the flexibility and charm this role needs.

Lighting by Mark Jonathan was very good, lending a romantic atmosphere to Act III, particularly in the way the new establishment was lit, and in the illumination of the two old fashioned street lights, both of which burst their bulbs at the end of the Pasquale-Malatesta duet in Act III — a nice touch.

Performances continue until June 24 — for more details click here.

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