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Mr. Grumpy's back

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
07/12/2010 -  & 14, 16, 18, 20, 21 September
Gaetano Donizetti: Don Pasquale
Barry Banks (Ernesto), Paolo Gavanelli (Don Pasquale), Jacques Imbrailo (Doctor Malatesta), Íride Martínez (Norina), Bryan Secombe (Notary),
Orchestra and chorus of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Evelino Pidň (conductor)
Jonathan Miller (director), Isabella Bywater (designs)

(© Catherine Ashmore)

Did the budget get swallowed by Domingo's Simon Boccanegra this year? Covent Garden has started the new season with not one but two revivals. Not one but two tried and tested Jonathan Miller revivals, to be precise. In fact Jonathan Miller revivals of not one but two works which have small casts and minimal choruses: Cosě fan tutte (Miller's spare, suits-and-mobile phone staging, on its billionth staging) and his friendly dolls house production of Don Pasquale. You'll have to wait until next month for the first new production (two concert performances of Les Pęcheurs de perles, an opera with a cast of four!) and the megastars aren't arriving until December when Adrianna Lecouvreur opens.

Still, non starry revivals are an excellent way to judge the health of an opera house, to see what resources they have to draw from and how they balance the casting of débutantes and seasoned pros. At least the piece is the focal point and with Don Pasquale, they have come up trumps with a consistently well chosen team with which to perform Donizetti's amiable, unthreatening farce.

This was to have been conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, who died only a couple of months ago and I can just imagine the sparkling, clear textured, perfectly paced account he would have given. The thankless task of replacing him went to Evelino Pidň, a wise choice, given his expertise in this very specific sort of repertoire, and I am sure Mackerras would have approved of Pidň's transparent textures and his ability to let those gorgeous melodies breathe and sing amidst Donizetti's usual rhythmic busyness. Some tempi were too rushed for my liking and there was the odd, irritating ritardando (like with Norina's “Son anch'io la virtu”) but Pidň otherwise has a way with bel canto music, twaddle as it is for so many people. Very few people can conduct twaddle well.

Or direct it. It has been some time since I have seen Jonathan Miller do a traditional, non-experimental staging and I had forgotten how good he is at it and how he avoids most of the pitfalls of directing Donizetti, like giving singers some dramatic motivation for that show-off music. With the vast dolls house set (clanking loudly and ungainly into position at the beginning and end of the show) taking up the full proscenium, Miller has a symmetrical, three storey space to play out his Upstairs-Downstairs social comedy. I just wish the silly wigs and white make up were toned down for the principals because, despite its apparent historic basis, it screams panto. It is a pity as Miller is especially good at detail, like the grotesques and busy bodies that make up Pasquale's servants. So much here takes place on the landing, letting the inhabitants of all three floors eaves drop and plot their next move. Sometimes it can all seem too busy, with one exquisite bit of social detail in the parlour taking one's eye off the main action but mostly it is a visual feast that the singers seem to flourish in, despite the vastness of the set. Much is done to dramatise the many, typically bel-canto moments where one character is put to one side, whilst the other sings. Take Don Pasquale's hilariously self pitying lament, where Miller lets Norina worry that she might have gone too far on the curmudgeon. The many patter duets are also thought through and well motivated. The production does falter, though when the dolls house closes and characters are left floundering in the abstract garden. The blocking doesn't work there and I did sense also that Miller hasn't entirely killed off the operatic comedy gesture (the most unfunny, anti-comic force-field in the known universe), with Paolo Gavanelli and Jacques Imbrailo the worst offenders of finger-wagging, shoulder-shrugging overemphasis.

Thankfully this didn't spill into the singing, as it so often can with this period of opera buffa. This was as prettily sung an ensemble as one could wish for with not a squeaky comedy voice in sight. The star of the show was suitably Paolo Gavanelli's Pasquale, not usually the case as the title role is so often cast with a clapped out bass-baritone. Gavanelli's ripe, truly Italianate baritone lies a little high for the role (indeed some of his low notes in the final act were cheated) but the payoff is a nimbleness to the music. He savoured the text and that brighter timbre created a more varied character than the standard grumpy uncle, threatening to disinherit his nephew, Ernesto.

Barry Banks' bright, fast vibrato was ideally suited to Ernesto. A big draw at the Colliseum, it is good to see him here in the original language, singing with real expression and not just the nasal, twittery showiness that so many bel canto tenors can only bring. I could have done without the second half announcement that he had an allergic reaction but was still going to sing, although that might explain why his tuning got the better of him in the final love duet with Norina.

The débutante of the show, Íride Martínez, gave us a steady but rather earthbound Norina, with only her extreme top notes sounding forced. Nevertheless she is a good actor and rounded off Norina's shrewish personality well. Imbrailo's rather pale, grainy voiced Doctor Malatesta gained momentum as the evening went, and the duets with Pasquale were energetic and well contrasted. He is a good actor and the Doctor's friendship with both Pasquale and Ernesto was well drawn but I would tone down the broad gestures. The Autumnal hues of the set do far more in letting Donizetti's wit and exuberance speak for themselves. This is a libretto that does not need forcing to be funny.

Don Pasquale is an opera I always forget how much I like and it seems I am not the only one. The comedy still struggles a little to compete with the audience's affections like Il Barbiere, Falstaff, or even Donizetti's own L'elisir d'amore, but such a colourfully sung, deftly paced performance as this, does a lot for its status. This is a bubbly, warm way to welcome us into the Winter season.

Barnaby Rayfield



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