How cruel these old comedies are! Don Pasquale, close to the end of Donizetti’s astonishing and tragically truncated career – this was his 64th opera; only two more were to come – is sometimes spoken of as being rather more nuanced than other examples of the genre. But at core it is the quintessential commedia dell’arte story of young love triumphing over authority in the shape of an old man. Or, to put it another way, it presents, for our approval, the spectacle of an old man being punished for attempting to foil the desires of the young.
In the case of Don Pasquale, the old man in question is uncle to young Ernesto, who wants to marry the sexy but poor widow Norina and expects to inherit the old boy’s money. Pasquale, in disapproval, determines to get married himself and disinherit Ernesto by producing new heirs. To this end, he enlists the services of Dr Malatesta, who suggests a beautiful young woman, Sofronia – his own sister, he claims, but, of course, she is none other than Norina. Pasquale enthusiastically agrees, and the marriage to a heavily disguised Norina (in front of a fake notary) is rushed through; besotted, he signs away all his money to her. No sooner does she have the certificate in her hand than “Sofronia” turns into a vicious shrew, demanding armies of servants, new décor, total obedience. Once all this has materialised, she tells Pasquale she has a lover. Eventually, broken and humiliated, he begs her for a divorce, at which moment all is revealed and he gives them his blessing.
Harsh stuff. But it elicited from Donizetti a score of extraordinary charm, inventiveness, lyrical transports and comic delirium, shot through with occasional shafts of entirely unexpected melancholy. Don Pasquale clearly meant a great deal to Donizetti: he made so many alterations to the libretto that its author disowned it. When it appeared, in 1843, Donizetti was racing manically from to Paris to Naples to Vienna, where he was court composer. He was already, at the age of 45, in the grip of the syphilis that would, over the remaining five years of his life, reduce him to a physical and mental wreck, and which seems to have been a complicating factor in his wife’s early demise a few years before. The melancholy seems to reflect something of his state of mind, but for the most part the score dances, a great deal of it in surprising three-quarter time: it burbles and gurgles and dead-pans; the ensembles that end each act are miracles of organised obsession.
All of this is brilliantly realised by the Royal Opera House’s orchestra, which has the chameleonic ability to transform itself as it negotiates the repertory. Here, under Evelino Pidò’s elegant baton, you would swear the whole band had eaten nothing but stracciatella and piccata al limone all their lives; the little trumpet concerto that opens act two transported us into an almost Fellinian world. The singers are equally responsive to the fierce demands of the score, and it is a particular joy to see Wotan/Scarpia in the person of Bryn Terfel articulating Pasquale’s patter with such delicacy and precision, to say nothing of Olga Peretyako’s coloratura bedazzlement as Norina/Sofronia, and Ioan Hotea’s excitingly stratospheric Ernesto, only very occasionally a little strained.
It is vexing to report that despite all this, the overall effect of the evening is muted. The director Damiano Michieletto and designer Paolo Fantin have turned it into an exercise in style, some sort of post-modern universe where everything is signified but nothing means anything. Pasquale’s house is represented by a fluorescent outline of a roof, the interior having no walls, only some doors and various domestic elements. This schematic layout is death to comedy, destroying focus, giving no one anywhere to hide, and making entrances and exits limp. Sofronia’s transformation of Pasquale’s house in act three turns it into what appears to be a car showroom. We get the idea, but there is no possibility of interacting with it. There are live film cameras on the stage – why? Where from? – which distance us further from the characters.
The individual performers do their best – Terfel has some very funny business – but he and his director prefer not to plumb the depths of despair past Pasquales have explored. Markus Werba as Malatesta, the puppet master, is cheerfully busy, but his name, meaning nasty, tells us that he’s no mere chum helping out the young people; there’s something far more unpleasant going on. The only memorable touches of the production are extraneous: Pasquale’s relationship with his non-singing housekeeper, a character not envisaged by Donizetti but brought to brilliantly specific life by the actress Jane Evers, who surely deserves a proper credit in the programme; and the oddly haunting sequences in which Pasquale’s mother and his younger self materialise. It’s hard to know exactly what these dream-like manifestations mean, but they are compelling and real, unlike much else in the production. Reviewing Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1990s production of Don Pasquale, Variety magazine observed an audience “limp with helpless laughter”. No danger of that here.
Royal Opera House, London WC2
This article appears in the 30 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone