Don Pasquale, Opera Holland Park

Opera festivals
— indeed, all outdoor or semi-outdoor activities — in the UK are in
thrall to the vagaries of the weather, and as I write this review in early June
I am sitting in my living-room, listening to the rain battering on the window
and hoping it might clear up by the time I have to go to Glyndebourne in two
days’ time.

For Opera Holland Park, whose theatre is ultimately a tent (albeit a highly
sophisticated one) in which the sounds and light quality of the outside world
are an inevitable part of the show, director Stephen Barlow has harnessed the
characteristic changeable gloom of the British summer to create a modern and
very British Don Pasquale that will resonate with anybody used to
taking seaside holidays in this country. It is an ingenious treatment, finely
honed by the work of lighting designer Mark Jonathan, which I cannot imagine
would work as well in any other theatre. It almost made a virtue of the
frequent noises-off from aeroplanes passing overheard and children playing
elsewhere in the park.

The opera is sung in the original Italian, and Pasquale’s drab, tatty
beach cafÈ is arbitrarily Italian (in the surtitles, Pasquale refers to it
throughout as his ‘casa’). Its menu, however, consists of fish and
chips or pie and mash, and there is no question that we are on the British
coast — a world of striped awnings, deckchairs for hire, pensioners
picnicking on benches with home-made sandwiches and a Thermos. Crucially,
it’s the world of another phenomenon with its roots in Italian culture
but adopted by the British as their own — the end-of-pier Punch and Judy
show, an idea which, while never overtly suggested, Barlow recreates in spirit
with a staging which served this peculiarly mean-spirited opera well with a
combination of broad visual comedy and vicious humour.

None of the characters in Don Pasquale are obviously sympathetic. Even
Ernesto, for all he’s been given the best of Donizetti’s lyrical
melody to in which to bewail his uncle’s attempt to disinherit him, is
ultimately a lazy freeloader who has grown too used to taking advantage of his
old uncle’s generosity. While Pasquale is unquestionably in need of being
taught a lesson in respect of his view of women, the bullying he suffers at the
hands of everybody else in the cast goes much too far and you can’t help
but feel sorry for the old man. It’s cynical, cruel and unashamedly

The visual humour was plentiful, with some laugh-out-loud moments. The
fresh-from-the-convent “Sofronia” whipped off a full nun’s
habit to reveal a sexy scarlet number, and in Act 3 was “revealed”
in a more grotesquely extravagant get-up still, draped across the counter of
her newly refurbished “CafÈ Corneti” like a swimwear model across
the bonnet of a sports car.

DonP_0123.gifDonald Maxwell as Don Pasquale and Richard Burkhard as Dr Malatesta

Meanwhile, a series of peripheral gags involving
walk-on characters from the chorus further highlighted the general tone of the
production. Don Pasquale’s outdated attitudes are underlined by his
gleefully lascivious reaction to the sight of two scantily-clad young lady
joggers, and disapproving glances towards a male gay couple with a baby (they
are later revealed not to be a couple at all, but the partners of the joggers).
Meanwhile, a casual user of a coin-operated telescope on the seafront has his
gaze distracted by the sight of the snazzily-attired Norina provocatively
applying sun lotion to her dÈcolletÈ, much to the annoyance of his
long-suffering pregnant wife.

Top vocal honours went to the Ernesto, the South African tenor Colin Lee who
is now deservedly enjoying a high-profile international career. He has a
personable stage presence, and a voice at the more substantially rounded end of
the flexible bel canto tenor spectrum, with bright liquid tone which pings
right to the back of the auditorium. In the title role, opera buffa veteran
Donald Maxwell was highly entertaining when the action demanded, but on the
whole he was more sympathetic and genuine than most, offering a rare degree of
balance. Richard Burkhard’s Malatesta had a well-schooled voice and
engaging personality.

Don-P_0052.gifMajella Cullagh as Norina

I have admired Majella Cullagh in numerous Donizetti roles in the past, but
sadly felt that she was miscast as Norina; her light, vinegary soprano did open
up somewhat as the evening progressed, but she remained overpowered by her
colleagues during the ensembles. And as spirited and entertaining as her
performance was, she made rather a matronly heroine — believable perhaps
as the scheming merry widow (there’s no reason at all why Ernesto’s
lover shouldn’t be somewhat older than him), but hardly convincing as the
nubile young bride who the lecherous Pasquale believes is the embodiment of his

In the pit was bel canto’s supreme champion, Richard Bonynge, looking
spry and conducting with poised lyricism.

All in all a strong, entertaining and memorable opening to Opera Holland
Park’s 2011 season, and one which turns this unique theatre’s many
idiosyncrasies to its advantage. One of next year’s operas is
Falstaff, which has immense potential in a theatre which loses natural
daylight as the performance progresses; let us hope the director makes the most
of it.

Ruth Elleson © 2011

image_description=Donald Maxwell as Don Pasquale [Photo by Fritz Curzon courtesy of Opera Holland Park]
product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Don Pasquale
product_by=Don Pasquale: Donald Maxwell; Doctor Malatesta: Richard Burkhard; Ernesto: Colin Lee; Norina: Majella Cullagh; A Notary: Simon Wilding. Chorus and Orchestra of Opera Holland Park. Conductor: Richard Bonynge. Director: Stephen Barlow. Designer: Colin Richmond. Lighting designer: Mark Jonathan. Choreographer: Ewan Jones.
product_id=Above: Donald Maxwell as Don Pasquale

All photos by Fritz Curzon courtesy of Opera Holland Park