Damiano Michieletto’s modern staging of Donizetti’s sparkling comedy Don Pasquale critics divided on its final appearance at the Royal Opera House in 2019. The story of an old man’s trickery into marrying a seemingly wise bride, only to have her quickly become a nightmarish tyrant as soon as the ring is on his finger, is a comedy with very sharp edges.
Don Pasquale wants his nephew, Ernesto, to marry a bride of his choice. Ernesto refuses because he is in love with Norina. Pasquale decides to disinherit his nephew and to marry a young bride himself. Pasquale’s friend Malatesta tricks Pasquale into marrying Norina, who poses as his siter and seems an angelic match. Norina goes through a fake marriage with Pasquale, to become the woman from hell, so Pasquale will let her nephew marry her as he wishes. The young lovers are discovered, forgiven and reunited, with Pasquale’s blessing.
Italian baritone Lucio Gallo ia friendly Don Pasquale on opening night. He has a beautiful tone of voice and is touching in his love for Norina and his own mother. This sympathy turns to pity as he becomes increasingly bewildered by his treatment at the hands of Norina and the realization that his mother was the only woman who ever truly loved him.
Norina, sung by the South African soprano, Pretty Yende, quickly becomes the fiancée of nightmares, but Yende has both a bewitching coloratura and a real charm. She shows real confidence in the role, especially in her sulky assurance as she prepares for the fake wedding to Pasquale. At times, she seems to struggle with the volume of the orchestra, but shows the character to be both tough and shrewd, as evidenced by the sharpness of her voice. Yende also retains a comedic flair in the role, such as when Malatesta trains him to be wise and his expressive face is shown close-up on a giant green screen.
It is sometimes difficult to understand the reason for Norina’s attraction to Ernesto by Xabier Anduaga, who has a strange attachment to his teddy bear. Anduaga’s character is a romantic dreamer, who displays a warmth and levity in his voice, especially in his off-stage serenade to Nornina. It also shows moments of real power and control.
The guaranteed role of Malatesta is sung by an accomplished Andrzej Filonczyk. He is a charming, though dangerous in his cunning Pasquale. Filonczyk and Gallo both show great composure and control, especially in the famous Pasquale-Malatesta duo who wring their tongues, while managing to wield strange hand puppets.
There’s a bitter side to the production, which means there’s sometimes confusion about who the audience should feel sympathy for. Pasquale is an exploited old man, struggling with his advanced age. When Norina slaps Pasquale for disinheriting her nephew, it’s more shock than fun, and the conclusion of Pasquale in a wheelchair being left in a nursing home, after giving Norina and Ernesto his blessing, is distinctly uncomfortable.
Paolo Fantin’s inventive decor presents us with the cluttered framework of Pasquale’s house, which Norina would later replace for its extravagant and expensive taste, aided by the choirs disguised as movers. Setting up Norina as a studio assistant gives a compelling foundation to her dedication to design.
Using a large green stage is a clever device for seeing close-ups of the cast to maximize comedy. However, Alessandro Carletti’s lighting is too bright for much of the production, with distracting reflections from the set, caused by its slow rotation.
It is a production of Don Pasquale which feels modern and features fine performances, with Donizetti’s lively score conducted precisely by Giacomo Sagripanti. We are asked to laugh at Pasquale, not with him. It’s a comedy that slips a little too close to cruelty.
Photo credit: Bill Hooper