Don Pasquale, Garsington, Oxon <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar -->

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The Independent Culture

Lamenting the sudden death of its founder, Garsington swung into action last weekend with the programme he'd set in place. Taking advantage of the medieval manor stage-left and the gardens stage-right, Francis O'Connor's designs for Donizetti's Don Pasquale are carpentered into the surroundings. His Parisian café seems the ideal setting in which rich Don Pasquale can plot to disinherit his rebellious nephew Ernesto by marrying a submissive girl, while his friend Dr Malatesta springs a counterplot to ensure Ernesto gets the girl in the end.

Finished just months before syphilis began to destroy his brain, this is the subtlest of Donizetti's works: behind the formal beauty of its trios and quartets lies the fact that when the characters sound most harmonious, they are actually most at odds.

Dr Malatesta (Riccardo Novaro) comes on as a dandy reading Freud, Conal Coad's Don Pasquale is a blinkered blusterer, while Riccardo Botta's Ernesto is a love-lorn fool: the comic framework is drawn with bold strokes. And when Majella Cullagh, as Norina, arrives, that framework explodes into life. Cullagh's coloratura is effortlessly smooth. In this incarnation, she's a prankster portraitist, getting a waiter to pose for her, then turning his picture into a Magritte.

The director, Daniel Slater, takes risks, ratcheting up the farce as Norina gives her husband's house a ruinously expensive make-over, replacing velvet and mahogany with the bright primary colours of Mondrian. Most impressive is the way Slater uses pace-slowing arias and solos as springboards for hilarious dramatic invention.

The trumpet solo in Act One masks a hilarious scene-change; during Ernesto's aria announcing his departure to foreign climes, his footman dresses him and packs his bags; Botta sings on, even while brushing his teeth. Slater finds an ingenious way to make Malatesta's asides plausible when he has to sing them in the gullible Don's face: he lets Malatesta hypnotise Pasquale until the aria is over.

Donizetti's opera ends cruelly for cuckolded Don Pasquale. Taking his cue from the valedictory tenderness of the music, Slater gives him a new lease of life, letting him skip off with a maid. Well, why not?

To 9 July; festival to 11 July (01865 361636)

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