Stage Door Review

Don Pasquale

Monday, April 29, 2024


by Gaetano Donizetti, directed by Barbe & Doucet

Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

April 26-May 18, 2024

Don Pasquale: “Altro affare non ti resta / che d’andarti ad annegar”

The Canadian Opera Company has presented Donizetti’s 1843 opera buffa Don Pasquale only once before, in 1994 in its season at the Elgin Theatre. The opera was staged in the popular “Wild West” production directed by David Gately, which still remains the only time I have found this comic opera actually amusing. The current production by the acclaimed Québécois team known as Barbe & Doucet (i.e., designer André Barbe and director Renaud Doucet) adds lots of extraneous paraphernalia and characters in an effort to make the opera funnier but succeed only in making it seem over-busy and cluttered. What makes or breaks a bel canto opera like this is the quality of the singing, and here only two of the four main characters are wholly successful.

Don Pasquale is often compared to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (1816) and there is a superficial similarity. In both we have an old man who wishes to marry a young woman and a confidant of the old man who in fact is helping to scuttle his plans. In Donizetti’s opera Don Pasquale’s nephew Ernesto has refused to marry the woman that Don Pasquale has chosen for him because he is in love with the poor girl Norina. Therefore, Don Pasquale disinherits Ernesto and vows to marry and produce his own heir. Don Pasquale’s confidant is his doctor, Malatesta, who has the idea of intriguing Pasquale with his sister Sofronia, whom Pasquale has never met. Malatesta and Norina’s plan is to engineer a false marriage between “Sofronia” (to be played by Norina) and Pasquale, after which “Sofronia” will make Pasquale’s life so unbearable he will give up the whole idea of marriage.

The note in the COC programme states that Donizetti, like Rossini, “had strong theatrical instincts; Don Pasquale has stood comparison with The Barber of Seville largely for this reason”. Yet, Rossini’s opera has a tension that runs throughout the action that Donizetti’s does not. In Rossini we wonder when will Doctor Bartolo realize that his barber Figaro is helping Count Almaviva to steal his ward and would-be fiancée Rosina right from under his nose. In Don Pasquale there is no such tension. Malatesta and Norina hatch their plan, carry it out without a hitch and easily achieve their goal.

The comedy in Don Pasquale lies first in the increasing outrageous demands that “Sofronia” makes on her new husband and, second, in Ernesto’s anger that his beloved has somehow married his uncle. (Malatesta and Norina have not let Ernesto in on their plan.) Barbe & Doucet spoil this second source of comedy having the false Notary who marries Pasquale and “Sofronia” tell Ernesto the plan right after the marriage. This is not in the libretto where the confused Ernesto is left to figure out what is happening on his own.

Barbe & Doucet have moved the action from the Rome of Donizetti’s time to Rome in the 1960s. Don Pasquale’s home is no longer a manor but a hotel, the Pensione Pasquale, where Pasquale treats the lobby as his private living room. The ‘60s details of the costumes are all well observed and the new setting allows Barbe & Doucet to give us humorous silent vignettes of some of the hotel’s clients – American tourists, a mother and son, a businessman and woman having a secret tryst.

This updating would be enough to make the setting more amusing, but Barbe & Doucet also add a silly framework to the story. During the overture we see an animated projection of the turning pages of a fotoromanza, a kind of comic book in 1960s Italy with captioned photographs rather than drawings. Here we learn that Don Pasquale loves cats but discovers he is allergic to them. His solution is to fill his home with figurines of cats in various poses. Why these are bright green is not explained. At the end of the overture, lighting designer Guy Simard lights up the set behind the scrim to show us a 3-D version of the concluding projected photo.

To give this odd design decision some relevance to the story, Barbe & Doucet dress Norina when playing Sofronia in fur-trimmed dress the same green colour as the cat figurines. Norina also makes various feline gestures that seem to excite Don Pasquale’s interest. All the figurines do is make Barbe & Doucet’s already cluttered set harder to move around in.

In bel canto opera what is of first importance is not the plot or the setting but, as the name suggests, the beauty of the singing itself. In an opera like Don Pasquale with only four major characters all four must perform at the same high level for the opera to be successful. Sadly, that is not the case with this production.

Consistently excellent performances come from Georgian baritone Misha Kiria in the title role and Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins as Malatesta. Barbe & Doucet’s conception of Don Pasquale is as a lonely, grumpy old man who no longer cares about his appearance. Why people would want to stay in a hotel where a man in a robe and slippers lives in the lobby is one of the more nonsensical aspects of the design. In any case, Kiria so fully embraces this concept that we begin to feel sympathy for him. This Pasquale is a fully rounded character and not the simple tyrannical fool of commedia dell’arte. Kiria has a booming voice that he can alter to reflect Pasquale’s many moods, and he has a wonderfully keen sense of comic timing.

Hopkins’s richly coloured baritone shines as Pasquale’s untrustworthy confidant. In fact, he puts so much passion into Malatesta’s description of the ideal bride, “Bella siccome un angelo” it becomes the most romantic aria of the opera. The technical highlight for both Kiria and Hopkins is the sillabato refrain of “Cheti cheti immantinente” where the two sing the words of the previous verse with unbelievable rapidity.

If Kiria and Hopkins are well matched, so are Canadian soprano Simone Osborne as Norina and Argentine tenor Santiago Ballerini, though not in a positive way. Both sing all the required notes but not with the effortlessness or power of famous interpreters of the past. Even when singing forte, their voices do not soar over an orchestra tutti as do the voices of Kiria and Hopkins. They are best heard when Donizetti’s accompaniment is minimal or intermittent. Yet even then what one misses from both is a rounded tone that would lend itself to greater expressivity.

Osborne’s account of “Quel guardo di cavaliere” is perky enough, but she misses many of the nuances the aria offers. Ballerini, who has an archetypal Italianate sound also has a very light voice. His traversal of the opera’s best-known aria, “Com'è gentil”, simply lacks the weight and body to be fully effective. Ballerini is not helped by Barbe & Doucet, who have the dumb idea that Ernesto’s final high note should be cut short when an angry neighbour throws a slipper at him. In the gorgeous duet “Tornami a dir che m'ami”, their voices do not blend with the perfection of, say, such different artists as Joan Sutherland and Richard Conrad in their 1963 recording.

There is nothing to fault in the playing of the COC Orchestra under Canadian conductor Jacques Lacombe. They give an exciting account of the mélange of tunes that makes up the overture and provide a lovely “Introduzione” to Act 2, Scene 2. Lacombe always chooses an appropriate pace and does not slow Norina and Ernesto’s Act 3 duet to a snail’s pace as some conductors do.

The COC’s new presentation of Don Pasquale is thus a mixed bag. The plot is so thin that the piece requires exceptional performances to make it succeed, yet in this case only two of four performances are exceptional. The framing story that Barbe & Doucet give the work does not harm our enjoyment but neither does it help it. I do know from the COC’s production in 1994 that Don Pasquale can be utterly delightful. I don’t mind waiting another 30 years for another Don Pasquale, but I do hope that if the COC stages it again it will manage to find the very best voices available.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Misha Kiria as Don Pasquale; Joshua Hopkins as Dr. Malatesta, Misha Kiria as Don Pasquale and Simone Osborne as “Sofronia”; Santiago ballerina as Ernesto and Simone Osborne as Norina. © 2024 Michael Cooper.

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