Don Pasquale, Royal Opera House, London

Welcome to the doll's house
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The Independent Culture

Jonathan Miller unlocks the door to his doll's house at the start of his 2001 staging of Donizetti's last comedy (mounted originally for the Maggio Musicale in Florence), and the old bachelor - that's Don Pasquale, not Miller - conveniently loses the key until the Don has finally got his life (and his house) back.

Jonathan Miller unlocks the door to his doll's house at the start of his 2001 staging of Donizetti's last comedy (mounted originally for the Maggio Musicale in Florence), and the old bachelor - that's Don Pasquale, not Miller - conveniently loses the key until the Don has finally got his life (and his house) back.

If at first you wonder how or why Miller and his designer Isabella Bywater happened upon this concept for the piece, all is soon revealed. Don Pasquale is an opera full of counterpoint, musical and physical. To be able to play that counterpoint, to be able to show cause and effect, action and reaction, without altogether suspending disbelief is extremely cunning. Miller can play out duetting characters' "asides" in different rooms; conversations can be overheard and characters eavesdrop with credibility; Pasquale's nephew Ernesto, the young hero of the piece, can be bedding his true love Norina in one part of the house while his uncle plots to dislodge him from another. And there's always some drama playing out "below stairs", where the kitchen is the engine-room of intrigue. It's a busy concept for a busy opera.

If there is a downside - and I think there is - it's that focus is so easily deflected from where it needs to be. Upstaging - unintentional and intentional - is inevitable. The household staff can, and do, create major dramas without singing a note. It's amazing how much knitting and cooking can be done in three hours, and where you've a diminutive (and very elderly) chambermaid making up a very large bed you honestly can't expect the audience to be looking anywhere else.

Besides, I had problems with this most intimate and claustrophobic of comedies being quite so far-flung. Its larger-than-life characters seemed belittled by the scale of the set. Or maybe that was intentional?

At any rate, it took a little longer to start cooking than the servants did. The conductor Bruno Campanella was the genuine article all right, but in the prelude the orchestra were already making heavy weather of his "knowing" rubatos. They were reading him better as the evening progressed. And my ears were adjusting to the lack of immediacy in the voices, particularly in scenes played out on the upper levels. There were big personalities in this cast, but there were times when you wouldn't have known it.

Simone Alaimo is a seasoned Don Pasquale. He has performed the role more than 300 times so far and, for better or worse, it shows. I enjoyed him most in act three where his impending demise promised, but never quite delivered, a massive heart attack.

Alessandro Corbelli's Doctor Malatesta, meanwhile, engaged in his sadistic machinations with some relish. Their breathless duet - one of the great buffo set-pieces - brought them both into sharp relief.

Which brings me to the precarious love interest. The Moldavian soprano Tatiana Lisnic made an impressive house debut as Norina. She has all the vocal equipment necessary to flirt outrageously with her voice - which is precisely what her first aria requires of her. Later, as the "convent girl" turned "big spender", she took the plunge from defiant top notes to decisive bottom ones as efficiently as she spent the Don's money. And, as she did so, boxes labelled "Prada", "La Perla", and "Escada" magically arrived from the next century.

Her Ernesto (for those who may have spent the last year or so in Shangri-la) was Juan Diego Florez, the young tenore di grazia sensation, in a very unflattering blond wig. His first aria "Cerchero lontana terra" was graceful and personal, sweet and true. But audiences (like this one) are now in danger of hearing the publicity not the voice. It's a bantam-weight voice, and narrow, like the very specific repertoire he sings. Sure, he can spin out the coloratura and pop the top Cs (only one here), but let's keep a sense of proportion.

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