Comic operas are difficult to get right on the stage, especially when that stage and auditorium is as large as it is at Covent Garden. The Salle Ventadour in Paris, where Don Pasquale premiered with great success in 1843, had about half as many seats as the Royal Opera House. But Don Pasquale is only part comedy and has an almost equal dose of romantic and psychological drama. Director Damiano Michieletto focusses on the latter two in this charmless but efficient production.
Michieletto already has two production in the Covent Garden stable, directing a controversial Guillaume Tell in 2015 followed by a combined billing of Pagliacci and Cavalleria rusicana later the same year. All of those had his signature gritty edge and so does this Don Pasquale. In act one we find Don Pasquale at home, not in a palatial house on the grounds of a vast estate, as we might expect from the ‘Don’ in his name, but in the significantly more cramped surrounding of suburban domesticity. The furniture and the car parked on the stage give a strong impression that our more modern and slightly poorer Pasquale had spent his most formative years in the seventies. It now becomes doubtful what kind of inheritance his love sick nephew might expect from him, but regardless, he is not to have it, since he has turned down Don Pasquale’s choice of a bride.
The second half of the first act is probably the clumsiest part of this production. It seemed to make no sense that Norina should be a photographer’s assistant, but that is what she is. Neither does it make much dramatic sense that Malatesta should be in love with Norina, but that he is too. And then there was a lot of faffing about with a camera and a green screen which was clunky and heavy handed.
Act three was by far the most cohesive. The sets are completely transformed, giving Don Pasquale’s house a shiny minimalist makeover. The radical redesign underlines Norina’s complete command over Don Pasquale at this point, but they also seem to inject some lustre and joy into the performances. Nevertheless we never quite get a sense of either the earnestness, or the comedy, at the centre of this opera.
The grey haired Bryn Terfel in the first scene might give the deceptive impression that he has aged unduly since Boris Gudonov a few months ago, but it is true to say that he is moving towards the latter part of his career. Don Pasquale is a role that should serve him well for quite a few years to come. He brings all his vocal agility to the part and something of his mastery of Falstaff too. Olga Peretyatko, singing Norina, warms up well through the first two acts to give a blistering performance in act three with impeccable high notes crowning her crisp clear soprano. Ernesto, sung by Romanian tenor Ion Hotea, is not given full opportunity to act out his forlorn romanticism and his main arias suffer something in lyrical beauty. Markus Werba is a young and energetic Doctor Malatesta and sings the role with a slightly coarser texture than might be expected. The cast is rounded off with veteran baritone Bryan Secombe as the notary.
Michieletto brings the spotlight on the cruelty and psychological games in Don Pasquale. The execution is a little heavy handed and this wonderful evening of singing leaves you a little short on mirth and warmth.