Friday 2 May 2014

Donizetti - Don Pasquale (Glyndebourne 2013 - Blu-ray)

Gaetano Donizetti - Don Pasquale

Glyndebourne, 2013

Enrique Mazzola, Mariame Clément, Alessandro Corbelli, Danielle de Niese, Nikolay Borchev, Alek Shrader, James Platt, Anna-Marie Sullivan

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

It's quite clear from the extra features of the BD release that the cast and creative team behind the 2013 Glyndebourne production of Don Pasquale are of one mind about what is the essential purpose of the work. The audience should come away from a performance of Donizetti's charming and delightful comedy feeling that they have been amused and entertained. And they are absolutely right. Don Pasquale is a very funny work, it has some amusing comedy characters and situations, some lively melodies and songs. So why then does the Glyndebourne production feel so lifeless and just plain unfunny?

Well, for a start everything feels forced. The work demands a lightness of touch from both the orchestra and from the cast. Not necessarily subtlety - you can ham-up Don Pasquale as much as you like and it can still be riotously funny - but with at least some measure of fluidity and consistency. Enrique Mazzola at least understands and projects the right tone for the work and the London Philharmonic fairly romp through the work, but the staging, the direction and a few of the the performances leave something to be desired.

Originally created as a touring production, there's at least a simplicity and practicality to the revolving stage that suits the flowing nature of the work and makes an effort to play out the proceedings on a light-hearted basis. Unfortunately, many of those elements introduced in the form of props are bewildering and just plain unfunny. Ernesto owning a rocking horse and teddy bears? Paintings that change and have trapdoors behind them? A pigeon on a string delivering a letter to Norina? Malatesta shoving the maid into the wardrobe for no apparent reason? It gets a brief chuckle or two from the audience, but none of it is clever, witty or seems to make any sense. It just seems desperate.

It's also somewhat inconsistent. The characters can be witty and entertaining in their own right, particularly when well directed and rehearsed, but this production never feels comfortable and relaxed enough to laugh at itself, modelling it to an extent on 'Dangerous Liaisons' which actually even seems to work against the humour within the characterisation. The problem mainly lies with the unnecessary change in the personality of Malatesta. He's shown during the overture tiptoeing at night through the revolving rooms of each of the sleeping characters, popping into wardrobes and out of baths. It cleverly indicates that he's going to be the arch manipulator of them all here, but it's not really that clever since this kind of characterisation ends up working against the ensemble nature of the deceits and self-delusions.

On the other hand, by making Malatesta's relationship with his 'sister' a little more in the vein of Sparafucile's in Rigoletto, it does actually place Norina more centrally as the one playing each of the foolish men. Again, this doesn't really hold up under any kind of scrutiny and instead just confuses the viewer as to what the real intentions of the story are (which should be about contriving a means to get Ernesto married to the poor Norina against his uncle's wishes), and consequently the comedy of the lengths that they go to in order to bring this about suffers.

Some good singing and comic timing can hide a multitude of sins and implausibilities in the plot, but even though they try very hard - a little too hard perhaps - none of them really seem to be able to make these characters work, at least not with the confused directorial approach employed here. You would think that the bubbly and irrepressible Danielle de Niese would at least make a sparkling and bright Norina, but she looks and sounds uncomfortable in the role, her singing a little strained and the effort showing in her exaggerated actions. It might look fine in the Glyndebourne hall, but in close-up in High Definition it seems overplayed.

By way of contrast Nikolay Borchev doesn't quite have enough personality or a voice big enough for the role, but he copes well with the singing and with the characterisation that he's been asked to play. Alek Shrader shows no signs of the illness that forced him to miss the opening night of this production at Glyndebourne, and makes things worthwhile with his lovely pure tenor voice. Any impression that he might have made however suffers from lack of direction and his role is also trivialised somewhat by the nature of Dr Malatesta's bewildering relationship with Norina. Alessandro Corbelli too is left to make what he can out of his Don Pasquale, but does so marvellously with a luxurious tone, precise enunciation and deft weighting of delivery.

These are small compensations though for the lack of real wit and humour in Mariame Clément's characterisation and direction. Comic opera in works like The Barber of Seville or Gianni Schicchi is difficult to carry off, but when it's done right it can be dazzlingly brilliant. Unfortunately once you've seen one of those works done really well it does colour your view and sets a standard that is hard for others to live up to. In this case of Don Pasquale, the Met's production with Anna Netrebko as Norina is a masterclass in comic opera performance. The attention to character, situation and comic timing in that production makes it all look so effortlessly easy, and emphasises just how forced and awkward the Glyndebourne one is by comparison.

The Blu-ray has the usual fine presentation from Opus Arte, with an impeccable HD image and strong audio tracks. Extras include a couple of featurettes totalling around 20 minutes that look behind the scenes and interview the director and all the main performers. The booklet makes much of the commedia dell' arte origins of the work and the nature of the three-four waltz time of the work, but doesn't really serve to greatly illuminate either the work or the production. The BD is region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean only.