Donizetti wanted his late masterpiece ‘Don Pasquale - premiered in Paris in 1843 – to look bang up to date, and throughout its glittering afterlife directors have played fast and loose with its place and period.
Recent British productions include Covent Garden’s giant 18th century dolls’ house, Garsington’s in an elegant Twenties Parisian café, and Holland Park’s beside a Casa del Fish’n’Chips on a windswept promenade.
Conceiving this new version for Glyndebourne on Tour, the French director Mariame[sic] Clement was tempted to set it in the Eighties, with its power-dressed young heroine Norina exuding feminist can-do. But then she realised that ‘the loss of elegance would be too great’, so it went right back into the 18th century.
And as Julia Hansen’s three-sided set starts to revolve, elegant is the word. Each exquisitely-designed section is less a room than a world vividly stamped with its owner’s personality: crabby old Don Pasquale, his sulky young nephew Ernesto, and the vivacious young widow Norina, whom Ernesto despairingly loves, and whom Don Pasquale will unwisely marry. Mysteriously walking through walls from one room to another while the overture plays is Dr Malatesta, destined to change everyone’s life in ways they don’t dream of. Only as the drama unfolds do we understand that this staging device presages a reading of the opera which is crueller and more cynical than anything Donizetti had in mind – and I won’t spoil the fun by revealing how.
This is a very witty, sexy production with a brilliant performance at its heart: Jonathan Veira’s Don Pasquale is the quintessence of ‘buffo’, larger than life and utterly credible. Ainhoa Garmendia’s Norina radiates calculating mischief; Enea Scala’s Ernesto may be a recognisably mutinous adolescent, but his sound is the purest bel canto; Andrei Bondarenko’s Dr Malatesta communicates insinuating persuasiveness in a wonderfully rich and even baritone.
The coups de theatre come thick and fast, ranging from an unusually literal version of pigeon post, to conjuring tricks with furniture, to the transformation of Pasquale’s servants into a crowd of aristocratic dandies. Garmendia’s singing doesn’t quite match the beauty of Scala’s in their climactic duet, but she more than makes up for it through her compelling presence. Enrique Mazzola generates a high-octane performance in the pit. The show is on the road: catch it near you.