For once I have absolutely no grumbles: this production of Don Pasquale, a cooperative venture of the Liceu and the Santa Fe and San Francisco operas, was a joy. No attempt to be cleverer than the composer or to read messages into the story and thereby take away the fun; no over-the-top interpretation; just two hours and forty minutes of lovely music and, as another Barcelona critic put it, vaudeville (or, in his Spanish copy, “vodevil,”which took me a moment or two to place).
Stage director Laurent Pelly and designer Chantal Thomas put together a simple but marvelously effective revolving house, surrounded by the facades of neighboring buildings around a square. Windows and doors opened when necessary and the central house pivoted when the action required a change of venue. The setting was subtle, unobtrusive and believable. Well, up to a point.
The comic story concerns an aged Don Pasquale (bass baritone Lorenzo Regazzo) who vindictively decides that he will marry in order to spite his lovelorn nephew Ernesto (tenor Juan Francisco Gatell) and deprive him of any financial possibility of marriage. He enlists the aid of his physician, Dr. Malatesta (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien), who in turn enlists the aid of Ernesto’s fiancée Norina (soprano Valentina Nafornita). Got it?
The idea is that Norina, presented as a young, shy virgin just released from convent school, would, with the help of a sham notary, “marry” Don Pasquale and immediately make his life such hell that he would be driven to extreme measures to get his release. All of which would help Ernesto and Norina to the altar.
Leaving aside fleeting 20th-century worries about elder-abuse and a doctor who blithely flouted his Hippocratic oath, the whole thing is enormous fun. And the plot works so well that in the less believable, but somehow convincing second-act scenery, the pivoting house of Don Pasquale is literally turned upside-down by a rampaging Norina.
Not only was the singing delightful, delicious, etc., but so was the acting – okay, overacting. Don Pasquale was, moment by moment, self-pitying, overbearing, ludicrously romantic and physically pathetic. Norina, by no means the scared little virgin she presents to her victim Don Pasquale, is possibly the only soprano I may ever hear singing clearly and effectively with a cigarette dangling from her lips. Her changes of mood to suit the plan are mercurial and all of her many varied poses totally believable. I have seen Mariusz Kwiecien, one of the favorites at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, many times, but never till now realized his comic potential. He positively slithered around the stage as he concocted his plan. And Ernesto, who, at first, seemed to have little opportunity to flex his muscles, had five minutes of hilarity climbing a ladder to fix the moon in the sky (don’t ask––just go and find out for yourself).
The ensemble was flawless and if, on a couple of occasions, the orchestra swamped a singer and if Ms. Nafornita seemed to clip high notes a couple of times, it was not a big deal. All in all, everyone of them was first rate. And while the chorus had only a small part to play, it did it to perfection.
Venezuelan conductor Diego Matheuz coaxed a light, airy performance from the orchestra.
I would very much have liked to see the second cast as well, but time did not permit it. Having heard Pretty Yende last summer, I was eager to hear her again. The young South African soprano sings the second Norina.
I suspect that whether you choose the first or second cast, you will have a terrific evening, but get moving because good seats are scarce. The first cast sings on June 18, 20, 22, 25 and 27. The second cast is scheduled for June 19, 21 and 26.
In conclusion, and at a tangent, I am wondering what it is about the opera that seems to attract labor unrest.
In 2010, I went to see Don Pasquale at the Komische Oper in Berlin. Komische productions always verge on the absurd, but this time the absurdity came from without. The first act, for all its jarring modernity, was beautifully sung and performed, so we sat happily through a surprisingly long intermission waiting for the second half. A tall thin man walked onto the stage and gravely informed the audience that during the intermission the orchestra had gone on strike. We were offered a refund, or the prospect of hearing the rest of the performance with a piano substituting for the full orchestra. Most of us chose to remain. The conductor manfully stayed at his post, working with an invisible, indeed nonexistent orchestra, and the pianist thumped the keyboard vigorously to provide the singers with their accompaniment. It was an eccentric evening.
And now, at the Liceu, I arrived to find the Ramblas full of police, protestors and first-nighters all milling around. The entire staff of ticket-takers, program-sellers, cloakroom attendants, and ushers, unable to reach agreement with Liceu management, had gone on strike and was making its feelings very evident just outside the doors. Without commenting on the rights and wrongs of the situation, about which I know too little, I can say that getting into the building was quite a struggle, through one partly opened door with protest sirens blasting in our ears at very close quarters. We found our own seats, and we had no coats to check at this time of the year. I am sorry for everyone involved and hope the situation is soon and justly resolved.
All of which leaves me to wonder what chaos will greet my next Don Pasquale, wherever it is.