Gaetano Donizetti - Don Pasquale
Wiener Staatsoper, 2015
Jesús López-Cobos, Irina Brook, Michele Pertusi, Juan Diego Flórez, Alessio Arduini, Valentina Nafornita
Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 8 May 2015
There's really only one important factor to take into account when it comes to Don Pasquale - the comedy. I'm not saying that there aren't musical qualities to admire in Donizetti's score, but if it doesn't entertain an audience, make you smile and laugh on one or two occasions, there's not a lot of point to it. No amount of virtuoso playing and singing or clever concept is going to make up for that. The performance and the entertainment however evidently go hand in hand, the singing needs to be bright and effortless, carrying you along on the verve of Donizetti's delightful, pacy score.
The Vienna State Opera's new production might not appear to offer any new spin on the work, but it succeeds wonderfully because they get the essentials right. You can tell that straight off from a look at the cast sheet. Mostly. Michele Pertusi is Don Pasquale, Juan Diego Flórez is Ernesto and Valentina Nafornita - the only unknown element for me here - is Norina. Pertusi is a fine bass, but it's not a voice that is suitable for every Italian role. A week after this performance, he sang the role of Zaccharia in Nabucco competently, but with little of strength and dramatic character that is needed for a Verdi bass. Pertusi is much more at home in bel canto and, if this performance is anything to go by, in comic roles as well.
Michele Pertusi's Don Pasquale is subtle and not overacted. He doesn't look 70 perhaps, or look as seedy as you might expect a man of his age and position to be in his eagerness to marry a virginal, innocent, young convent girl, but in Donizetti's world, you need to have some measure of sympathy for the old fool otherwise it's just not funny. Pertusi gives this Pasquale some character, neither bumbling fool nor tyrant - just an old man with money and weaknesses, one of which is beautiful women. And who can blame him for that? There's a lightness of touch to the performance and good comic timing and Don Pasquale is an opera where timing and interaction are critical.
Juan Diego Flórez is still about as good as it gets in the bel canto romantic tenor role. He has claimed that his voice is darkening and that he might not always play roles like this in the future, but there's no sign of any weakness or change in his voice here. Acting is not a speciality of Flórez, but he always has energy and flair in his performance, never looks like he is just walking through a role, even if he makes challenging singing roles look effortless. There's room to make Ernesto a little more rounded in character, but Flórez is content to let him remain the naive romantic and derive humour from that alone. When you can sing like this like Donizetti intended, there's not really any need to change anything.
The two male leads are wonderfully cast, and so too is Alessio Arduini as Malatesta. Without underestimating his importance to the dynamic of the opera - or indeed the kind of virtuosity that is required to sing a rapid-fire duet with Pasquale - Malatesta is less of a star role and more of a motor that keeps it all going. It's all about the interaction and the timing, as it is in much of Don Pasquale, and indeed that duet is a fine example of him winding up the pace and tension that sets Don Pasquale off on his final spin. Arduini even brings a little more verve to the role than you often find, but without letting his character dominate or take away from the other important starring roles.
None of which perhaps is more important than Norina. It's one of those roles that can be a dream or a nightmare, a glamorous role that offers great dynamic range for a soprano to show her abilities as an actress but it can be hugely challenging to sing. She has to play the innocent girl just out of a convent and show that she is playing it, but be convincing at the same time. She also has to be a real tyrant, throwing her weight around, but at the same time feeling a little guilty about the deception they are pulling on a vulnerable old man. Aside from those broad comic contrasts, you'd also like it - particularly in more enlightened times - if Norina has some character and a mind of her own. Not asking for much then from a soprano.
I haven't come across Valentina Nafornita before, and that would have been my only question-mark when looking at the cast list for this new 2015 production of Don Pasquale at the Wiener Staatsoper. Nafornita surpasses all expectations one might have for this role. Like Malatesta, her sidekick, she's a motor, constantly winding up and driving the action onwards, providing plenty of conflict and humour. Norina can be a very physical role, demanding in terms of actions and movement, in that all-important interaction and timing, working with the other members of the cast, as well as in pushing a soprano to her limits in terms of singing. Nafornita looks and sounds the part, bright and vivacious, with an impressive vocal range that makes her performance and its contribution to the whole a sheer joy.
There's not a great deal to be gained from attempting to update or play around with the mechanics of Don Pasquale. Mariame Clément's production for Glyndebourne 2013, for example, attempted to unravel the plot and push it in another direction and ended up falling flat on its face, although it wasn't helped by some weak performances that failed to connect with the comedy. Irina Brook's direction, in contrast, is clear and supportive of the comedy. It doesn't over-complicate the interaction and the relationships between the characters, but allows them the freedom to play off each other in the manner the Donizetti intended, making full use of the ample opportunities that this provides.
The set is not a traditional one, but is nonetheless captures the essence of the work itself. It's bright, colourful, smart and a little bit tacky. Tacky in a good way, of course. The action takes place not in Don Pasquale's home, but in what looks more like a hotel lobby with a bar in the corner. We can maybe assume that Don Pasquale is a successful hotel owner rather than a guest, with employees instead of servants, since the transformed Norina seems to be free to come in and turn everything upside down, with a taste for pink and glitter. It's a style as fake as Norina, an image calculated to that infuriate her 'husband' with cheap dazzle that nonetheless is an expensive extravagance. Even the fake palms in the lobby provide the perfect cover for Sofronia's fake meeting with her lover, Ernesto.
It all has a way then of coming together, playing to the mood, retaining the integrity of the comedy, without stretching the situation beyond the limit where it successfully works. Jesús López-Cobos ensures that all the musical element fall into place, the orchestra playing with verve and energy in the spirit of the work, rather than reverentially. The same sense of comic timing and interaction that is there between the cast is necessary also in the pit, and between the pit and the singers, and it also needs to be in the spirit of the stage production. That's the challenge of comic opera and it's not easy to achieve, as a failing on any one level can have a knock-on effect on the rest, but the Wiener Staatsoper production makes it look deceptively light and easy.
Don Pasquale was broadcast live from the Vienna State Opera as part of their Live at Home programme. The next broadcast is Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production of DAS RHEINGOLD on 30 May and DIE WALKURE on 31 May. Both are conducted by Simon Rattle. Details of how to view these productions live at home can be found in the links below.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video