Elegant Pasquale rounds off Glyndebourne 2013

25 Aug

I think Don Pasquale is probably the summit of pre-Falstaff Italian comic opera (excluding, of course, those by Mozart).  I love Rossini’s comedies and, of course, Elisir and Fille du Régiment, but with its small cast, brilliantly concise libretto and an unerring mixture of brilliance, cynicism and sentiment.  Donizetti distills all the tradition into as perfect a light comedy as you could want.  Musically, it may not have an aria as winning a Una furtiva lagrima but the characterisaton of the different characters is outstanding, the finale to Act II is a complete joy and has anyone written a more brilliant chorus than the servants’ chorus in Act III?

It seems to be quite a difficult piece to do well.  I didn’t much enjoy Jonathan Miller’s Royal Opera House production, with characters dwarfed by a huge dolls’ house of a set.   The last ENO/Opera North version was just horrible – a case of someone trying too hard to put the opera across in a large house.  It’s actually a piece that needs a small, intimate house, where the singers can simply play the show – one of the best I ever saw was a touring production the WNO did in the 1990s (Rebecca Evans as Norina) where an alert, well-rehearsed cast got on with the show with the minimum of gimmicks and the maximum of intelligence.

I saw Mariame Clément’s production when it was toured in 2011.  She moved the setting back a hundred years to the world of Laclos and Marivaux – a world of cynicism and artificiality which, on the whole, works pretty well.  A revolve enables different locations and the costumes, largely black and white, turn brilliant as Norina starts to have fun.  She has revised it slightly since then.  When it was new, Malatesta and Norina went off with each other at the end – her Norina stays with Ernesto, I think rightly.  There are some doubts: the chorus is an elegant 18th Century audience who comment rather than take part – it works, but does the revolve throughout the servants’ chorus distract from the sheer brilliance of that music: it’s difficult to concentrate fully on them if other things are happening on stage.  The sets were built for the tour and they look a bit cheap and small-scale for the main house, but rather that than the sort of sets that are really the star of the show.

Overall, however, the performance I saw on 24th August (the last of the run) was hugely enjoyable.  The house is the right size for the piece, the direction concentrates on acting and characterisation.  The characters know what they are doing, move elegantly and communicate with each other and us. I hope that Clément can return.

The leading roles have been recast and, overall, this was a very nice cast indeed.  Alessandro Corbelli is already one of the great Pasquales and it is wonderful to see someone get the role so effortlessly right.  He creates a pompous, fussy character but the joy is in watching his superbly mobile face.  He listens and registers every emotion and thought – you can see Pasquale thinking – and he does this without exaggeration, with undertstatement and perfect timing.  His voice may not be the largest or most grateful of instruments, but his enunciation is outstanding and he sings with complete understanding of the style.  He gave a hugely enjoyable masterclass on how to play the role.

Daniele di Niese, predictably, was a lovely Norina.  I thought her first aria a bit tentative, but she warmed up and had a marvellous time as the disguised Sophronia.  She is a star and is simply one of the most watchable sopranos I know.  The scenes between her and Pasquale were a complete delight.

Nikolay Borchev was Malatesta – his baritone sounds good in this music and he sang with elegance and acted alertly, not stealing the show from the others, but acting as a strong foil.  He’ll be welcome back.

Alek Shrader was ill so we had Alessandro Scotto di Luzio as Ernesto.  As ever at Glyndebourne, he was well rehearsed and showed no signs of any uncertainty in his acting.  Vocally, he has a nice, sappy tenor that suits this music well.  He was tested beyond his limits, however, during the high lying parts of the role – the end of the Act II aria simply didn’t have the confidence that it needed.  He sang the words well and interacted well with the other characters.

The chorus were excellent and the LPO seemed to appreciate Enrique Mazzola’s conducting hugely.  I enjoyed it as well – zippy, at one with the direction and with just the right sentimental elegance that this piece requires.

And elegance is the word that really sums up this evening.  I’ve been to funnier Pasquales and some with showier singing but few which got closer to what this opera is about.  We left with a smile.

It’s been a pretty good season.

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