Review – Don Pasquale – Scottish Opera

Rating: ★★★☆☆

This review also appears at Opera Britannia

Obviously intended be another populist crowd-pleaser, Scottish Opera’s new production of Don Pasquale is visually gorgeous but sabotaged from the pit by conducting from Francesco Corti that is bold, daring and utterly insensitive to the fact that anyone is singing.

Things began well. On entering the theatre, the curtain was dominated by a large projected image apparently advertising the production. The first few bars of music came at a cracking pace and then a pause slightly more pregnant than usual as the digital image was revealed to be the first page of a digital book. As the overture continued, an unseen hand then started to scroll through the pages which turned out to be the pages of an Italian photo-story featuring the characters we were about to be introduced to. They gave the back-story to the production which was, and one is aware in the telling of it that there is a lot to swallow here, that the old bachelor Don Pasquale loves cats but is sadly allergic to them. Upon this artifice, which is unsupported by the libretto, hung quite a lot of the production. We saw in the unfolding comic-book story that Don Pasquale was having tests from a doctor to determine what it was that was causing him to be ill and that it turned out to be cats. Cats had to be eliminated from his life and these were then replaced by lots of artificial cats. The digital book was done with some panache though it is difficult to affirm the decision to have the text of the speech bubbles in Italian with no translation.

When the overture was finally over and the narrative thus established, the curtain finally went up to reveal André Barbe’s brilliant set design. Again there was something of the comic book about the set which took us to Pensione Pasquale – a small lodging house in Rome, sometime on the cusp of the swinging sixties. Vibrant colours dominated the stage and a magnificent painted backdrop showed the local buildings towering over the Pensione.  Draped between the rooms that we could see and the sky above were yards of washing all out to dry in the sun on clothes lines.

And thus we found Don Pasquale consulting Dr Malatesta about his allergies and apparently being assured that there could be no cats for him. Around the old man himself were stuffed cats, china cats and plastic cats. Cats indeed, of every kind.  All of this cat business was really leading to the best joke of the show – a brilliant visual gag at the final curtain which it would be unkind for the reviewer to reveal to anyone who might see the show.  However, reflecting on it after seeing the show, one is struck by how odd this feline premise was.

Now, what about the singing? Well, it is difficult to tell because for much of the evening the orchestra was playing too loudly to hear the singing which makes reviewing the vocal elements really rather tricky. Alfonso Antoniozzi in the title role seemed the most securely cast member of the company. His Pasquale was a rather sad figure in the midst of much comic hilarity. For a down-at-heel Pensione proprietor he had a luxuriant and rich baritone voice.

Dr Malatesta was played by Nicholas Lester in a chinstrap beard which made one wonder whether a young Abraham Lincoln had wandered into the action and like Pasquale himself, he had a lot of trouble making himself heard. This was particularly difficult in their patter duet “Cheti, cheti” which should be a highlight of the whole evening. With both Antoniozzi and Lester struggling to make any headway against the orchestra, it was something of a damp squib. Unfortunately, it was just this point where the director had decided to let down comic book speech and thought bubbles to dangle next to the singers’ heads. These connected the action with the comic-strip story of the overture, not least in being in Italian, but they simply served to highlight the fact that the audience couldn’t hear the singing, couldn’t see any surtitles (which gave up in the face of the speed of the singing) and couldn’t understand the words anyway.

Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson’s first entrance as Norina was something of a coup – she was revealed to be standing in a café on the roof of Pensione Pasquale when the washing lines were dropped downwards, thus covering over the interior rooms. It was an inventive and clever change of scenery though just a little more attention to detail is needed to stop the audience getting a view of people’s legs sneaking into position. After a slightly uncertain start, Ms Jenkins-Róbertsson’s voice improved considerably as the evening went on. At her first appearance she seemed to lack confidence and control but by the final dénouement she was absolutely glittering. Her outfits were fun too. When trying to seduce Pasquale she was all done up in a frock trimmed with fur and the most bizarre wig that made her head appear in the form of a cat, the better to ensnare her victim in her wiles. After he had signed up to marriage she became a fearsome harpy but this time dressed in leopard skin – another kind of cat altogether.

Ernesto, Pasquale’s had been deployed as the receptionist in the hotel. Aldo Di Toro alone amongst the company seemed to realise that there was a competition to be had with the orchestra that could only be won by producing more volume, though sadly this proved to be more volume than was comfortable. Unfortunately the strain that this introduced into his voice soon began to show, particularly in the upper register. However, his “Com’è gentil” two thirds of the way through the second half was a wonderful treat, well worth waiting for – the most lovely singing. Significantly, of course, it is sung to the sound of a couple of guitars rather than the orchestra. Immediately following this, the duet between Ernesto and Norina, “Tornami a dir” was also very beautiful – the two voices blending perfectly.

There’s not enough for the chorus to do in Don Pasquale which is a shame as they were singing well when they got the chance. They were used to provide comic walk-on parts throughout the whole piece as various holiday-makers wandering in and out of the hotel. There might have been just a little too much of this. It appeared for much of the production that the director Renaud Doucet had gone overboard with comedy walk-on parts and it was rather a surprise when they all eventually began to sing.

So, putting it altogether, what have we got? We’ve got some excellent ideas from Renaud Doucet, fabulous designs from André Barbe (curtain up for the second half was dazzling) and thoughtful lighting from Guy Simard. The orchestra were, barring the volume problem, in tip-top condition and the show is laugh out loud funny. But the cast were struggling and it is impossible to know whether that was just because they were labouring under duress.

All in all, I’m hoping that Scottish Opera keep this one in the repertoire. Given a perky cast and a conductor who is interested in the audience being able to hear the voices it would be a scorching hit. As it is, this is a metaphor for a company which doesn’t quite know what it is up to – trying to please everyone but not quite pulling it off and with a lack of musical leadership that should give everyone who cares about opera in Scotland sleepless nights. This was an enjoyable night out, but it wasn’t the fantastic night out that it could have been. Scottish Opera needs a musical director who knows the difference and knows how to make the magic happen on the night.

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