Traditional Don Pasquale Matches Elegance of Donizetti’s Score
Donizetti, Don Pasquale: Soloists, Glyndebourne Chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra / Enrique Mazzola, (conductor), Glyndebourne Opera Theatre, Sussex, 18.7.2013 (MMB)
Don Pasquale: Alessandro Corbelli
Dr Malatesta: Nikolay Borchev
Ernesto: Enea Scala
Norina: Danielle de Niese
A Notary: James Platt
Servant: Anna-Marie Sullivan
Director: Marianne Clément
Designer: Julia Hansen
Lightening Designer: Bernd Purkrabek
Donizetti (1797-1848) wrote Don Pasquale towards the end of his life, i.e. during 1842, with its premiere at the Théatre Italien, Paris, on 3rd January 1843. According to some scholars, it is his comic masterpiece and the last in the golden period of opera buffa, meaning the first half of the 19th Century.
Donizetti has not had a prominent place at Glyndebourne. There was a production of his celebrated comedy L’elisir d’amore during the 2011 Festival and Don Pasquale was first performed in the 1938 Festival but never again after that. So, its appearance this year was indeed welcome. It was the first time that the current production was part of the Festival; it is not new but a revival of the 2011 Tour production.
Director Marianne Clément bravely created a period piece instead of going for the trendier and at present, more common modernised versions of 18th and 19th Century operas, which do not always serve the music or respect the composer. As she says herself in a little note, printed on the programme, she and her team “…wanted to try and match the elegance of Donizetti’s music,…”. To my mind, this is, in today’s operatic world, a rather refreshing idea though some people may call it conservative or conventional. Regardless of one’s opinion, there is no doubt that Clément fully achieved her objective described above. The production is elegant, beautiful and it truly honours Donizetti’s stylish score. The characters appear in 18th Century costume, exquisitely designed by Julia Hansen who also created the settings to match. These are brightly enhanced by Bernd Purkrabek’s clever lighting, most particularly in the garden scene, complete with blue skies and an orange sunset. Clément made excellent use of the revolving stage facilities at Glyndebourne, cleverly moving around the different scenes; showing, for example, what Don Pasquale and Doctor Malatesta are just discussing and freezing them in their positions while slowly rotating the stage to the next scene where we see Norina at home belittling a romantic novel. It is extremely effective and gives the action on stage a film-like fluidity.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra under the sensitive baton of conductor Enrique Mazzola gave an outstanding, superb performance of Donizetti’s beautiful, elegant music. Mazzola understands the score exceptionally well and truly honoured the composer, enhancing the delicacy and classicism of the music, making it obvious why some people have classified the piece as “Mozartean”. The Glyndebourne chorus were, as ever, exceptionally good and delivered a remarkable performance in the few scenes where they appear, positively lighting up the stage with their voices and, more literally, with their pure white 18th Century costumes and wigs.
The cast was well picked, forming a harmonious and very effective ensemble. The always excellent Alessandro Corbelli returned to Glyndebourne to sing the title role. Corbelli was in great form (I suspect that he doesn’t know how to be bad!) and delivered a funny but touching Don Pasquale. He stayed away from the caricature and portrayed the old man as a foolish but real human being who, deep inside, just wants to be happy and have an enjoyable life. Doctor Malatesta was sung by Nikolay Borchev, a young, promising baritone from Belarus. Borchev has an attractive voice, with a strong high range, enabling him to power above the orchestra with relative ease, though his Italian pronunciation was a little unclear and he appeared slightly unsure in the softer passages. However, his acting was excellent and he delivered a mildly creepy, manipulative Malatesta, which is in line with the character and made it rather effective. Sadly, exciting young tenor Alek Shrader, who was scheduled to sing Ernesto, was forced to cancel at the last minute, suffering from a throat and sinus infection. Sicily’s Enea Scala was fortunately at hand and able to replace him, reprising his role from the 2011 Tour production. Scala delivered a solid, quite accomplished performance, especially if one bears in mind the short notice of the engagement. He possesses a high, distinctive tenor sound though personally I find his tone a little metallic. The top range of his voice is impressive, ringing clearly across the auditorium but he does not sing effortlessly. The difficulty of some passages becomes obvious; he sings with strength rather than elegance. However, his phrasing has a certain refinement and his diction is clear. He played an attractive, pleasant Ernesto and effectively portrayed a young man in love, at times moving, especially when his uncle (Pasquale) throws him out of the house. Glyndebourne Chorus and Jerwood Young Artist 2013 James Platt made for a very fine, rather funny Notary and Anna-Marie Sullivan was excellent in the silent role of the Servant. And then, there was Danielle de Niese!
When I interviewed David Pickard (General Director of Glyndebourne Opera) back in March, he talked about the decision of having Don Pasquale in this year’s festival and said that (and I quote): “…it offered a fantastic opportunity for Danielle de Niese to make her debut in the role of Norina here. Of course, she isn’t the first Mrs Christie to have sung this role; there’s Audrey Mildmay…who sang it years before, which is a rather neat symmetry.” Symmetry apart, Norina is indeed a role tailor-made for de Niese’s considerable talent. She made full use of the opportunity offered her and delivered a truly exceptional performance. Her natural youthful energy and bubbly personality suit the character, and she looked stunning in the gorgeous 18th Century, yellow and pink gown. Danielle de Niese was in fine voice, displaying her coloratura to great effect, as well as refined phrasing and a marvellous crystal clear tone. Like Corbelli as Pasquale, de Niese stayed away from caricature or from portraying Norina as merely a deceptive, unpleasant, unfeeling girl. Instead, she managed to give a perfectly balanced portrait of a determined, slightly reckless but also sensitive woman, living alone, and who must fend for herself in a world dominated by men. Her performance is well measured, subtle, full of the vivacity of a young woman in love but also of a woman who, having become a widow and in order to survive, sees herself forced into a situation she dislikes. Here, de Niese is superb, managing a few touching moments where one distinctly has the impression that she feels sorry for Pasquale and regrets what she is doing. To me, the best Norina that I have ever seen and the icing on the cake of a rather engaging and charming production.
To top it all, the weather was fabulous, warm and sunny, showing Glyndebourne in its most glamorous appearance, which added to the pleasure of a delightful operatic evening.