You sometimes hear people describe Don Pasquale as a ‘cruel’ comedy – though they’re often a bit vague as to what they mean. Pin them down and the complaint seems to be that the 70-year-old gentleman who belatedly gets married in the plot is treated cruelly.
But Don Pasquale begins the opera by attempting to impose his will upon his nephew’s choice of wife, and disinheriting him when he refuses to comply; any cruelty in the opera starts there.
There are undoubtedly tricky moments for director, cast and even the audience to negotiate collectively, most notoriously when during their battle of marital wills in Act III, Norina – Pasquale’s fake bride, whom he has willingly married as part of his scheme to disinherit nephew Ernesto – slaps her elderly husband’s face.
As the music instantly changes mood, this tiny but telling action momentarily stops the opera in its tracks. Norina realises regretfully that she’s crossed a barrier, while the audience’s sympathy migrates to Pasquale – whatever the rights and wrongs of the overall situation. In Damiano Michieletto’s production, this crucial turning point is skilfully handled by all concerned.
Bryn Terfel plays the old man who learns a hard lesson through the actions of Olga Peretyatko’s astutely played Norina, herself aided and abetted in the fake-marriage scheme by Ioan Hotea as Ernesto and Markus Werba as the latter’s friend Dr Malatesta. And whoever said comedy shouldn’t be challenging?
The Italian director and his team produce a lithe, visually spare realisation of the piece, moved forward from Donizetti’s own time to the present (Pasquale discovers his new wife’s apparent infidelity by reading a message deliberately left for him to see on her mobile phone).
Visually it’s smart and stylish, with plenty of visual jokes blended with moments of pathos – the silent appearances of a couple who seem to be Pasquale as a boy with his mother, for instance – while actor Jane Evers steals further silent scenes as her employer’s equally elderly, long-suffering servant. A sharp edge to the humour is part of the package.
This is Terfel’s first go at the title role and his performance is a winner: his generous bass-baritone is heard to its best advantage and he presents all sides of the all-too-human Pasquale.
Russian-German soprano Peretyatko runs rings around Donizetti’s tricksy notes as well as her flummoxed husband. Romanian tenor Ioan Hotea is vocally adept and dramatically perfect as Ernesto – who is finally able to marry the wife he wants at the curtain – while Austrian baritone Werba is elegantly manipulative as arch-schemer Malatesta.
There’s impeccable work throughout from the company’s chorus and orchestra, while conductor Evelino Pidò knows exactly how such a piece should go.