OPERA / Years too late for laughter: Nick Kimberley on Patrick Mason's production of Don Pasquale, now arrived at the ENO

Why does tragedy travel across time so much better than comedy? We still gladly shed a tear for Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, married off for family convenience. But when a similarly misplaced 'marriage' becomes the stuff of comedy in the same composer's Don Pasquale (first performed in 1843, eight years after the premiere of Lucia), our laughter is somewhat muted. Time has magnified Lucia's predicament so that her descent into madness, murder and death seems horribly contemporary. By contrast, Norina in Pasquale, a widow apparently on the make, is no longer quite the figure of fun she might have been in Donizetti's day.

Music can induce a delicious melancholy, it may make us smile, but can it really make us laugh? A guffaw - the sort of thing that Pasquale seems to demand - is usually the product of situation, or verbal dexterity. The very real cruelty in Pasquale is reflected in the music, but the music itself does not raise a laugh in the same way that a plangent cadence can touch the heart.

Most producers approach the problem by playing off the opera's 19th-century narrative against a 20th-century framework, nudging us with a series of gags reliant on the gap between antique and modern. Patrick Mason's production, first seen at Opera North in 1990 and now making its English National Opera debut, is not free of such inconsistencies (this Pasquale is a pill-popping office tyrant, a distracted Donald Trump; an offstage voice sings over the office intercom) but these touches have the rare virtue of being genuinely witty.

Joe Vanek's set provides a neo- Neo-classical surround into which the various settings can be inserted. The curtain rises on a rich and powerful man in his element - his office. On the wall, a framed painting is balanced by another frame containing a safe - the preening Pasquale clearly knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. He reveals his foolishness by falling for an apparently virginal convent girl - actually the widow Norina, herself intent on marrying Pasquale's nephew Ernesto.

The humour has the sadistic, belittling edge of a Whitehall farce. The schemer Malatesta warns us that 'There's no fool like an old fool', and the curtain descends on the advice 'Always try to act your age.' We distrust such sentiments, and Mason's staging exploits our discomfiture as much as Pasquale's.

In a virtuoso display of comic business, Andrew Shore sacrifices a little vocal accuracy; his guying of the fatuous Pasquale allows a hint of sympathy to intrude. While Shore's big baritone dominates, Rosemary Joshua fits the job specification, 'audacious and vivacious', which Norina provides in one of her arias. Wide-eyed and big-grinned, Joshua perhaps overdoes the vivacious, but the voice has an acerbic edge to keep the character from being merely pert.

Alan Opie's Malatesta is a skilled manipulator with neat comic timing, but Adrian Martin's first night Ernesto suffered an unannounced huskiness which ensured his canto was anything but bel. What there was of the voice was a little thin; still, he controlled the tortuous vocal line better than anyone. Phyllis Mead's translation came across with admirable clarity, although the English language does Donizetti few favours, the long vowels tending to distort the musical shape. Perhaps that's one reason for the Coliseum's neglect of Donizetti, which in turn means that the orchestra does not have this music in its system. Still, the playing is energetic, partly because the conductor, Andrew Greenwood, is not shy of a little street-band brashness. It may take a few performances for this Donizetti to scintillate, but the ingredients are in place.

'Don Pasquale' is in rep until 5 April at the London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, WC2 (071-836 3161)

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