Don Pasquale, Glyndebourne, East Sussex
Abbado / Uchida, Royal Festival Hall, London

Only dynamic Bruckner and joyous Schumann in expert hands can match a Donizetti sparkler

Downmarket soap, an empty hand-cream dispenser and a seat in the stalls for £60.

Glyndebourne is a different place in the autumn, home base for two months of touring to Woking, Milton Keynes, Norwich, Plymouth, Wimbledon and Stoke. There's no dress code, no dinner interval. But in Mariame Clément's debut production of Don Pasquale the standards are champagne-picnic high as Donizetti's ageist comedy is recalibrated as a sting-in-the-tail celebration of female rakery and erotic capital.

From the first musky insinuation of the solo cello under conductor Enrique Mazzola, this is a Don Pasquale with an edge: peppery and pungent. Hogarth and Fragonard wink from the wings at designer Julia Hansen's carousel of rumpled bed-sheets, discarded corsets, musty day-beds and fashionable pleasure gardens. These are the worlds through which the adventuress Norina (Ainhoa Garmendia) must move to secure her fortune. Asleep at her desk while Don Pasquale (Jonathan Veira) and his indolent nephew Ernesto (Enea Scala) slumber in comfort, she's a scribbler: writing, rather than reading, a cheap romance in her first aria – a grafter and a grifter.

As tart as the famous slap at the start of Act III, Clément's staging emphasises the precariousness of a life without money and the loneliness of old age while resolving the inconsistencies of the libretto. Here Doctor Malatesta (Andrei Bondarenko) and Norina are lovers, the army of servants an army of fan-snapping socialites. Don Pasquale's fury with Ernesto is transformed into the baffled love of a parent for a lazy teenager. Both are vain, both vulnerable. At least they have each other when Norina scampers off to her next adventure.

To this 18th-century reworking of a 19th-century morality tale, the cast add heart and sexiness. Flipping the memento mori on his wall to an aphrodisiac still life of oysters, and dusting off the discarded toys from Ernesto's boyhood, Veira's Pasquale is a touching portrait of encrusted bachelorhood. The spoilt boy to Bondarenko's suave manipulator, Enea Scala inclines his powder-dry tenor elegantly to the onstage Spanish guitars, while Garmendia's exuberance and healthful, supple soprano ensure an easy conquest. There's tremendous character and resourcefulness here, pert woodwind, bold tempi, tight ensembles, limber phrasing and a stuffed pigeon. A festival product for touring-season prices and an auspicious debut for Clément.

Two years after Don Pasquale was premiered in Paris, Schumann completed his Piano Concerto. The works could not be further apart in tone and ambition, the Donizetti a hard-nosed farce of vanities on the make, the Schumann almost painfully porous in its rapt inhalations and exhalations. Where the Italian studied his fellow men, the German described an ideal: musical dialogue so intimate and intense that conventional protocols are dissolved. It was, and is, a Fantasy, and in Claudio Abbado's performance with Mitsuko Uchida and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, that spirit of reinvention and reimagining continued in Bruckner's Fifth Symphony.

No pianist communicates joy like Uchida. And from the grassy freshness of Lucerne's woodwind to the heathery softness of the strings and antiqued patina of the horns, each heartbeat and silvered semiquaver of Schumann's now urgent, now languid concerto was infused with a sense of felicity. In the Bruckner, Abbado swept away the conventional clouds of incense and cathedral ceilings, tracing a depthless night sky in the feathered suspensions and muted pizzicato of the introduction. Bruckner's tectonic plates of brass and ice-capped peaks of woodwind are slow to yield to Italianate sweetness. The gargantuan grotesquerie of the Scherzo has rarely been so brutal, the balm of the final chorale so glorious. The stuff of legends from a legendary conductor and orchestra.

'Don Pasquale' (01273 813813) to 29 Oct, then touring

Next Week:

There's the bitter thrill of compulsive gambling as Anna Picard sees Neil Bartlett's Opera North production of The Queen of Spades

Classical Choice

Bartók dominates the week as the Takacs Quartet play all six of his String Quartets over two evenings at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall (Tue & Wed). Birmingham's Symphony Hall is the first venue for Esa-Pekka Salonen's touring production of Duke Bluebeard's Castle with the Philharmonia, John Tomlinson, Michelle DeYoung and video-art collective Yeast Culture (Fri).

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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