Opera Holland Park’s Light As A Feather Don Pasquale

Donizetti, Don Pasquale : Soloists, Chorus of Opera Holland Park, City of London Sinfonia, Richard Bonynge (conductor) 7.6.2011 (GDn)

Don Pasquale – Donald Maxwell
Dr Malatesta – Richard Burkhard
Ernesto – Colin Lee
Norina – Majella Cullagh
A Notary – Simon Wilding

Conductor – Richard Bonynge
Director Stephen Barlow
Designer – Colin Richmond
Lighting Designer – Mark Jonathan

City of London Sinfonia

Donald Maxwell as Don Pasquale and Richard Burkhard as Dr Malatesta. Photo © Fritz Curzon

This new production of Don Pasquale is described in the programme as the “first ever at Opera Holland Park”. Why use the word “ever”? Is it that much of a surprise that the opera has never before been given here. Well, considering what an ideal work it is for this setting, the implied surprise might just be justified. It is classic buffa and the audience went wild for it. It’s not too long, which is just as well considering we are all effectively sitting outside long past ten at night. And most importantly of all, it plays to the strengths of the impressive ensemble that the company has gathered.

Surely the biggest name, and probably the single most important factor in the musical success of this production, is veteran conductor Richard Bonynge. He lives for opera buffa and was really in his element this evening. The whole thing was light as a feather, and the sparkle and life that he infused into the performance, both vocal and orchestral, brought freshness to every phrase.

On the stage, director and fellow Australian Stephen Barlow, sets the action at a fish and chip kiosk on an unnamed, but thoroughly British, seafront. The conceit works well, with the kiosk standing in for the Don’s “casa”, and every other site-specific reference in the libretto cunningly relocated to the seafront setting (and with many of the updates incorporated into the irreverent surtitle translations). The long stretch of promenade and good chunk of beach give the stage designers something to do with all the space on the huge stage. That still leaves the director a few problems though, given the incongruity between the size of the stage and the cast of only five. His solution is to have little vignettes going on in other corners, runners, an old couple, some patrolling police, that sort of thing. In fact, many of these fit so well into the London park setting that when they come on to the stage they cause a brief moment of concern that they haven’t just wondered in from the park. The premise works best in the first two acts, but is stretched in the third. Here, Norina’s profligacy is demonstrated by a redesign of the kiosk as some sort of space-age ice cream bar. True enough, I think I once saw something like it on the seafront at Littlehampton, but that is not the point. They also need to relocate the denouement scene from the garden, as is explicitly stated in the libretto, to the beach. By the end, it doesn’t quite feel as snug a fit as it did at the start, but it is worth it for the apt reinvention it brings to the first two acts.

Donald Maxwell is excellent in the title role. He plays the part for all it is worth, by turns lecherous, rude, and downright embarrassing for everyone else involved. His fist entrance is wonderful, careering about on a mobility scooter. What a great prop! I was hoping he was going to stay in it for the whole opera, although perhaps that might have taken the idea a bit far. His voice doesn’t quite have the power it used to, but then he is playing a character in his 70s. The clarity of his diction is fine, and he is able to keep up with the patter.

The cast work well as an ensemble. Each of the singers has a voice suited to their role, and (with the possible exception of Maxwell) there are no real standout performances. Richard Burkhard is as sly as he is smooth as Dr Malatesta. Precision is the chief quality of his singing, and he he has a slight upper hand on Maxwell when it comes to the patter. Majella Cullagh is great fun as Norina. She has all the notes for the part, even the astronomical ones, but the quality of her sound isn’t as pretty in the upper register as some sopranos and she doesn’t quite have the rhythmic precision in the florid run passages. I was surprised to read that the name of the tenor singing Ernesto was Colin Lee, so impressive is his Italian I though it must be his native language. In fact, everything about him says Italian tenor, his tone, his languid phrasing, even his posture. He is one to watch, and surely an asset for any company working in the buffa repertoire.

The choir and orchestra where generally on good form. The start of the third act was slightly messy, musically speaking, with some ragged entries and suspect tuning, much of which was down to the choir. The City of London Sinfonia played with character and charm, their stylistic sensitivity to the music no doubt partly thanks to their conductor. The wide pit is a mixed blessing, it gives all the players elbow room, but can lead to coordination problems between the brass at one side and the woodwind at the other. (Incidentally, an excellent cornet solo in the second act, that’s not the sort of thing you usually come to an opera for but it was a real musical highlight.)

It is a strange experience hearing professional quality opera performed in what is essentially a tent. It is a sophisticated tent though, this is Kensington after all, and the seats are wonderfully comfortable. Just one word of advice if you are thinking of coming, and I’d recommend you do: bring a coat.

Gavin Dixon