William Oldroyd's production of Donizetti's late and perfectly constructed comic masterpiece Don Pasquale is now well into its ETO tour and must be judged as properly run-in, with rough edges smoothed off. This being the case, it was surprising on its opening night at Snape Maltings to find so much about the evening that was still a bit approximate: singers just behind the beat, the rapid comic patter routines not quite gelling with the drive of the orchestra. Of bel canto there was little in evidence – the cast relied instead on rhythmic projection of the key words in lines of narrative (a workmanlike English translation by David Parry that still sounded old-fashioned at times) and full-blooded singing for most of the time, with not nearly enough light and shade. The overall result was an enjoyable evening, with pace and verve in nearly all the right moments and some top-notch orchestral playing, but an operatically underwhelming experience. Yes, but….was my feeling after the show.
Part of the reason lies with certain crucial directorial choices. Donizetti and Ruffini wrote a deceptively simple take on the essence of commedia dell'arte – elderly dupe outwitted by couple of schemers – and created an opera that is a gift for a quartet of fine singers. But for ETO, Oldroyd decided to make Don Pasquale an ageing internationally renowned conductor, Malatesta his agent and Norina a diva whom we first encounter in her dressing room after a performance of Siegfried! The problem is that none of this really works cogently, or is carried through as the opera develops, or says anything pertinent about the work itself. As Don Pasquale, Keel Watson clowns his way onstage through the overture, pretending to conduct, and then makes his way to his drawing room, which is adorned by huge photographic portraits of himself as a maestro. As a sight gag it raises a laugh, but the conceit is completely at odds with what happens next: Don Pasquale's reliance on Malatesta to find him a meek young bride. Do internationally acclaimed conductors really have trouble finding female companions? Not in my experience - they attract them from every part of the house! Similarly Mary O'Sullivan as Norina – Donizetti's heroine is a shy, retiring girl who buries herself in romantic literature until she becomes part of the plot to discomfit Don Pasquale. Then, and only then, does she become an onstage virago. But if Norina is singing Brunnhilde at the outset, then strips to her underwear in her dressing room, and then assumes the role of Sofronia, the element of comic contrast is entirely lost. Instead of illuminating the relationships within the work, the director perverts them in what is – to me – a wholly unconvincing way.
So what is left of Donizetti? Firstly, his delicious, effervescent score beautifully played from first to last by the ETO Orchestra under Dominic Wheeler. Having been to many ETO productions over the years, and to those of its predecessor touring companies, I can only observe that the standard of orchestral playing has risen immeasurably in recent years – warmth in the strings, rhythmic élan, real attention to inner dynamics and harmonic detail in every department. Wheeler drove the music forward without ever rushing or forcing the pace and achieved a nice balance between stage and pit.
Secondly, his quartet of soloists. Keel Watson is a fine singer and has an appealing stage presence – audiences warm to him, and his assumption of Don Pasquale was good as far as it went. Where it did not go however was into that crucial bass register, that area of the voice that makes vintage Don Pasquales for ever memorable. For the fact is that Watson is a baritone, and in a sense that undermines the structure of Donizetti's musical numbers – we simply do not hear the true bass line. So there was something missing, an essential ingredient left out. A touch of over-acting here and there on Watson's part only confirmed that omission.
As the tenor juvenile lead, Ernesto, Nicholas Sharratt showed once again that he is always interesting onstage and has an idiosyncratic, definitely un-Italian sound that would seem to indicate Britten roles in future. In this production he adopted the hang-dog, 'less is more' approach to the role and it worked well: his mock suicide scene was cleverly choreographed with three stools and a rope and he pulled it off (literally as well as metaphorically). I found his tenor sound cold and not that expressive in the early scenes, but by Act Three he had warmed up considerably and his duet with Norina was a highlight. But I would have loved more of a legato line in general – which I seem to recall from his Nemorino at Grange Park a few years back.
A lot in Don Pasquale depends on Malatesta, the wily schemer, the organizer, the man of business who orchestrates the whole deception. Owen Gilhooly proved to be solid in the part, with a firm baritone line and a good sense of attack that the ensembles certainly needed. What I missed vocally was vivid colouring and expression, the hallmarks of a singer who can really characterize the part. Gilhooly might have came across more distinctively if his Don Pasquale had been a true bass: as it was, he and Watson did not really feed off each other.
That leaves Mary O'Sullivan as Norina. An attractive onstage presence, she tackled the role head-on from her entrance aria to the final ensemble, with plenty of energy, accurate and well-pitched singing and good dramatic feel. She handled the moment of the 'unveiling' of Sofronia to Don Pasquale with true comedic skill. Her voice has a soubrette quality and, as with the other principals, she projected her lines rather than attempt to sing them legato, but she blended effectively in the ensembles and soared when her solo line so demanded. O'Sullivan came into her own in Act Three, both amid the refurbishing of Don Pasquale's house and in the wings of the theatre, and helped to end the evening on a high-ish note. But her Wagnerian accoutrements did nothing for the role, or for her.
The ETO chorus also came into their own in Act Three, and lifted the whole pace and feel of the show: they were a welcome presence. But at the end I was left with mixed feelings – delight to be re-acquainted with Donizetti's score, as finely played as it was here, but disappointment that the talent and energy that had gone into the show did not really lift it much above the average. The whole, alas, was not greater than the sum of its parts.
Photo credits: Richard Hubert Smith