The first two of three Opera Australia productions this season share an inventive and successful reimagining of two of the most enduringly popular works in the operatic repertoire. But what a difference a decade makes! In contrast to John Bell’s setting of Tosca in Nazi occupied Rome of 1944, Roger Hodgman has moved the operatic action of Don Pasquale to a decidedly sunnier Rome of 1953. Despite the difference between the dramatic tension of Puccini’s versimo world and Donizetti’s opera buffa effervescence, love is at the heart of both.
Drawing on images from William Wyler’s 1953 film, Roman Holiday, the scrim curtain features a remaking of the film’s publicity poster, complete with Vespa scooter, two large heads about to kiss and promises of “glorious technicolour”. The fact that the woman has her eyes open is a signal that we are about to see a heroine who has her wits about her. The technicolour is slightly muted rather than saturated, with gelati hues that are fresh and upbeat.
Basically a four-hander, the characters have something of stock commedia qualities: an old man enamoured with the idea of a young, docile wife, a beautiful girl in love with a besotted young man, and a trickster. Donizetti and Ruffini, his librettist, do add more subtle layers to the semi-plagiarised libretto, even allowing the small chorus of servants to provide a dimension of worldliness as they comment on proceedings. When they refer to Ernesto as a “good for nothing nephew”, you do feel they have a valid point too. There is not one totally sympathetic character in the whole opera, yet they all have their redeeming features so we feel for them when they are thwarted or get their comeuppance.
Looking more like Colin Firth than Gregory Peck in the publicity shots, it is actually not John Longmuir who motors onto the stage on the iconic Vespa scooter during the Overture; it is Samuel Dundas as Dr Malatesta, who sets the scene for a romp and plots to rescue his friend, the lovelorn Ernesto. The role of Ernesto is vocally taxing with a high tessitura and some challenging upper notes. Longmuir negotiated his way through the minefields creditably, if not always comfortably, with a clear, ringing tone.
As Don Pasquale Conal Coad made an excellent job of portraying an old deluded fool, who suffers very badly indeed before he comes to his senses. With his substantial, juicy bass baritone and great comic presence, he was endearing even at his most unreasonable and ridiculous. Some of the stage business was fairly predictable but handled with such flair and deftness that it was very funny. Coad treated the tongue-twisting presto of the patter duet with equal dexterity. The mood changed abruptly, however, at the point when Norina slapped his face; it was genuinely shocking, perhaps even more so because of the modernised context and our sensitivity to domestic violence.
It takes some skill to persuade an audience that Norina is actually a likeable character given her treatment of her supposed “husband”. Rachelle Durkin’s remorse at her actions and regret that such extreme measures were necessary gave the moment considerable pathos. Donizetti has her tell us in her opening Cavatina that she is essentially warm-hearted and Durkin’s vivacious personality made her an appealing figure. She captured Norina’s joie de vivre in the physicality of her acting and in her splendid vocal agility, relishing the comedy of her disguise as Malatesta’s cloistered sister Sofronia. But she was not just a cynical widow who knows how to use her feminine wiles to get what she wants; she was also a woman whose genuine love found rapturous expression in the beautiful love duet of the final scene.
In the planning and execution of the plot to reinstate Ernesto in Don Pasquale’s will and put all thoughts of marriage out of the old man’s head for evermore, Durkin and Samuel Dundas gave energetic performances as playfully inventive “siblings”. Dundas’s Act 1 aria, with its tongue-in-cheek cadenza, and his animated patter duet with Coad were particularly enjoyable. In fact, some of the most exhilarating singing for the evening came from the various ensembles: duets, trios and quartets where the voices sounded relaxed and nicely blended.
Although there were some untidy passages when orchestra and singers were not quite as one, Orchestra Victoria played well under the baton of Guillaume Tourniaire. The aria at the beginning of Act II, when Ernesto has been thrown out of his home and laments that all is lost, is essentially a duet for tenor and trumpet. Mark Fitzpatrick gave a fine account of the trumpet part, playing as a busker on stage – perhaps a daunting role for a musician who is usually in the pit.
With staging that included three revolves for quick and effective scene changes, a street café setup, complete with Mafioso characters, and an array of evocative detail in props and costumes, this was a production that aimed to entertain, and it did just that. Spirited performances and some terrific singing brought Donizetti’s tuneful score to sparkling life.
Picture by Jeff Busby shows Rachelle Durkin as Norina and Conal Coad as Don Pasquale.