Switzerland Donizetti, Don Pasquale: Soloists and Chorus of the Opernhaus Zürich, Philharmonia Zürich / Enrique Mazzola (conductor). Opernhaus Zürich, Zurich, 15.12.2019. (CCr)
Director – Christof Loy
Set designer – Johannes Leiacker
Costumes – Barbara Drosihn
Lighting – Franck Evin
Choir director – Ernst Raffelsberger
Dramaturgy – Kathrin Brunner
Don Pasquale – Dimitris Tiliakos
Dr Malatesta – Konstantin Shushakov
Ernesto – Mingjie Lei
Norina – Julie Fuchs
Carlotto – Dean Murphy
When one pictures the stages that host the characters of Donizetti’s comedic operas, spare neo-Victorian décor might not be the first thing that comes to mind. Even if the stock commedia dell’arte characters are more psychological and nuanced in Don Pasquale than elsewhere, all the old tropes still appear here: the old codger lusting after the clever young hussy, the mischievous doctor getting in their way, and a hopeless romantic who does find love in the end. What trappings are such figures more likely to evoke? Velvet chaises longues and heavy curtains? Ruffs in collars and poofy skirts? Or spartan rooms with high ceilings and prim wallpaper?
Johannes Leiacker’s stage for this new production from Opernhaus Zürich is at times straight-up barren, lacking not only sweetness but any direct sense of real people inhabiting real places. Sure, there is a settee, but it could be anyone’s. When the servants spruce up the place at the behest of the lavish new lady of the house, they do so by adding a single string of Christmas lights and a couple of paper lanterns. (Were they aiming for the dormitory look?) Much of the story plays out in the nearly-empty antechamber of Don Pasquale’s estate; there’s no garden in Act III in which the lovers can meet, but nor would that garden, one suspects of this production, have had any flowers if they had.
This would seem to be in direct contradiction to German director Christof Loy’s stated ambition, which is to create a comedy in which the humour originates entirely in the characters’ actions as fully-fledged people, ones with recognisable wills and desires. I get that an understated stage is supposed to leave more room for psychology in the characters, but this stage is so undercooked it leaves enough room to open a department store, replete with a bowling alley (the one exception: the lusher heroine’s boudoir). Nor is the space filled in with broad gags; in the programme Loy went on record as eschewing slapstick and jokes for jokes’ sake, favouring instead a sort of ironic naturalism. This has the makings of a smart approach, even if the sum effect is one of little guffawing and many a knowing titter instead – spread out a tad too thinly over the evening.
So, Loy’s goal is really only realised with two of the characters (luckily, they’re the two leads). Julie Fuchs is a sharp comedic actress, which she has had ample chance to demonstrate on the Zurich stage. Her version of Norina is one who is happy to torment Pasquale (Dimitris Tiliakos), reasonably fond of her beau (Mingjie Lei), and content to grope – or be groped – by whatever other gentlemen populate her life, including Dr Malatesta (Konstantin Shushakov), even though she is pretending to be his sister in order to wed the Don.
This polyamorous heroine may be an example of today’s easy empowerment of operatic women by zooming in on their libidos and their underwear instead of on their mischief, say. At least it opens up lots of room for Fuchs to seize the stage with bits and bobs of character-based storytelling. In this production, Norina’s control over the events vastly outweighs her apparent stake in them, lending her a happy arrogance. Her marriage to Ernesto seems in the end to be more of a reflection of that control than a blissful coupling of hearts.
The dry-but-not-dapper wit of Dimitris Tiliakos in the title role is the other side of this successful coin; Tiliakos gives us a lonely patriarch whose desire for a young little thing of a wife is familiarly pervy in the beginning of the evening, but it is pervy in an honest way, and few aspects of comedy evoke more pathos than honesty. Loy has Pasquale give Norina to Ernesto during their great love duet ‘Tornami a dir che m’ami’, making the scene twice as touching, Mozartian in its grace. By the end of the night, Pasquale has more humility than anyone else on the stage – which is why he must be mocked, mercilessly. The opera’s finale, ‘the morale of all this’, is a chipper edict from Norina that old people should pretty much shut up and die lonely if they were stupid enough to end up single in their 60’s. Ouch! The characters’ ambiguity is at the surface of the libretto, and Loy pounces at the potential for complexity.
More loving than any of the characters was the playing of the orchestra. Enrique Mazzola sussed out a sweet tone that never bloated into too-Romantic strings or limped through broader phrases, a tone that united sobriety and richness. And Fuchs and Tiliakos weren’t only the best actors on the stage, but also the best singers. The younger men, tenor Mingjie Lei and baritone Konstantin Shushakov, both have some maturing to do vocally. The former lacked ring and sounded purer in tone in his chest than in his head. The latter started off tense and initially lacked lyricism but arrived at the best recitative singing of the evening. Contrast all that with Julie Fuchs’s coloratura, which stayed buoyant in its dexterity, and Tiliakos’s sly patter, which took a get-on-with-it approach, rounding corners to keep the breath and smoothness afloat. The terrific German bass Johannes Martin Kränzle sang the premiere and holds the role of Don Pasquale for most of the performances, which run through January, but audiences that catch Tiliakos instead are hardly missing out.