English Touring Opera at Sadler’s Wells – Don Pasquale

Don Pasquale – opera buffa in three acts to a libretto by Giovanni Ruffini [sung in an English translation by David Parry]

Don Pasquale – Keel Watson
Ernesto – Nicholas Sharratt
Malatesta – Owen Gilhooly
Norina – Mary O’Sullivan
Notary – Brendan Collins
Butler – Adam Tunnicliffe

Chorus & Orchestra of English Touring Opera
Dominic Wheeler

William Oldroyd – Director
Agnes Treplin – Designer
Matt Haskins – Lighting designer

Reviewed by: Ben Timothy

Reviewed: 8 March, 2010
Venue: Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

“Don Pasquale” is probably not Silvio Berlusconi’s favourite opera. A rich, powerful and self-obsessed septuagenarian determined to prove that he’s ‘still got it’, the bachelor Don’s desire to marry an attractive young girl makes him easy prey to a plot that leaves him utterly humiliated (and financially poorer). English Touring Opera’s fun new production doesn’t draw parallels with the Italian premier (too obvious perhaps). Instead, with equal plausibility but more subtlety, director William Oldroyd deftly turns Pasquale into a tyrannical – and abysmal – conductor, whose home is decorated exclusively with huge portraits of himself.

Played with terrific energy, pomposity and larger-than-life bluster by Keel Watson, we see the Don’s professional manner in action during the Overture. From a spot-lit music stand in front of the curtain, Watson hilariously apes many a second-rate conductor as he wildly gesticulated, emoted and yelled at the ETO Orchestra in the pit. Pasquale’s objectionable character is thus firmly established from the outset (although the joke had worn a bit thin by the end of the six-minute overture – initial hearty laughs petered out to sporadic titters).

Owen Gilhooly is brilliant as Malatesta, Pasquale’s agent determined to take the Don down a peg or two. Strong-voiced and fluent, Gilhooly oozed charm and confidence. As Malatesta’s sister, feisty actress Norina, Mary O’Sullivan displayed masterful, nightingale-like coloratura with petite, clear tone. Her capricious, no-messing characterisation was ideal for beating the hapless Don into submission after she has tricked him into ‘marrying’ her. Norina’s lover, Pasquale’s nephew Ernesto, is sensitively sung by Nicholas Sharratt. His lyrical delivery, especially in the Act Three duet with Norina, was attractive – although lacking in the red-blooded machismo arguably synonymous with Italian tenor roles.

The opera’s frothy plot is slight, and the no more than serviceable libretto – little enlivened by David Parry’s English translation – is often ponderous, particularly in the first act, where a few more gags would not have gone amiss. Donizetti’s Rossinian score doesn’t match Signor Crescendo’s genius for memorable tunes, but there is much engaging music to enjoy, and Oldroyd’s production ensures plenty of laughs.

Pricelessly funny is the scene in which the Don, battered and bruised by his domineering new ‘wife’, decides to confront her unknown lover with a battery of medieval torture equipment, taken improbably from the cupboard in his study – and each gently but firmly removed again by Malatesta before any harm can be done. More subtle but just as amusing is the motley array of Wagnerian characters that emerge from the wings backstage at the theatre where Norina has been starring. The denouement, when the Don finally realises what a fool he’s been, is a delight.

Despite strong chorus singing and orchestral playing, the biggest drawback of the performance was Dominic Wheeler’s pedestrian conducting, which sadly displayed little of the Italian flare and verve so crucial to bringing a score like this to life. Maybe this was just first-night tension, and things will loosen up once the country-wide tour gets underway. It would be a shame if not, because this was an enjoyable evening with the potential to be a truly sparkling one.

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