Amid Brexit chaos, constant protests, and a rising new generation of other royal woes, comic relief is hard to come by in the British capital. A tense audience at the Royal Opera left it all aside to take in a new look at Gaetano Donizetti’s funniest opera, Don Pasquale. Designed by arguably the most innovative director in Europe, Damiano Michieletto, and shared with the Paris Opera and Palermo’s Teatro Massimo, this cheerful romp about family politics sees the hilarious victimization of its title character, a fading and indolent landowner whose friend Doctor Malatesta (“headache”) contrives a marriage for him with the coquettish Norina. Norina, however, is in love with Don Pasquale’s besotted nephew Ernesto, who stands to be disinherited upon his uncle’s unexpected new marriage. The two youths thus scheme for control of the old bachelor’s fortune. For their plan to work, Norina must prove to be so unbearable a wife that Pasquale will stop at nothing to get rid of her. In the end her tempers and caprices have the desired effect, and the happy young couple are united with Pasquale’s blessing, a handsome allowance, and Ernesto safely remembered in the will. If only marriage were so simple.
Michieletto has updated the opera from its mid-nineteenth-century setting to an approximate present. It may be hard to imagine fading landowners as we approach the third decade of the twenty-first century, but they are around and about, and supplemented by a superordinate rentier class that can imitate their slide toward decadence. In a perfect clash with the ugliness of our modern world, Norina’s scenes, in which Malatesta grooms her for the rouse, are a series of poses and moues in the style of that most nebulous of postmodern careers, the “influencer.” As Malatesta coaches her attitudes and affectations, she models against a vast green background that allows her to be filmed and projected onto a large screen that dominates the stage. Intercepted notes and letters are text messages snooped off of lost mobile phones. Norina’s expensive makeover of Pasquale’s dilapidated digs includes swapping his rusting Fiat for a sleek Maserati. Michieletto’s unique insight extends even to the normally insipid. Ernesto, sung by the sunny Romanian tenor Ioan Hotea, pours out his determination to escape his plight in the saccharine yet principled aria “Cercherò lontana terra,” but here he complicates his naïve intentions by vandalizing the old Fiat and stealing his snoozing uncle’s wallet.
Our Don Pasquale, played as a larger-than-life lout by the wonderful bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel, lounges in his bathrobe around a ramshackle old house. (There are no walls depicted and a roof suggested only in outline by fluorescent tubes.) Malatesta looked like the type of urban quack who might have issued medical marijuana licenses before that branch of natural medicine became respectable in the last few years. Markus Werba hit the comedic high notes in the role, but his more lyric baritone proved too light in color to answer Terfel’s stentorian broadsides. The characters’ second-act patter duet “Aspetta, aspetta, cara sposina,” a run-through of Pasquale’s plan to rid himself of Norina, resounded as the evening’s most engaging music, but it was Terfel’s blusterous majesty that carried it to its greatest heights. It would be unfair to insist that Olga Peretyatko has succeeded the superstar Anna Netrebko as a powerhouse Russian bel canto soprano, excelling in roles that her countrywoman has left behind to embrace the challenges of heavier Verdi and Puccini parts. A more just assessment is that her spiraling candenzas and girlish exuberance are charismatic enough to resound in their own right as the gifts of an exceptionally talented stage performer.
Evelino Pidò will not go down as one of history’s greatest conductors. The pacing of the orchestra was at times sloppy and at others rather jejune, and the playing of Donizetti’s lighthearted score lacked drive and focus. William Spaulding’s choral work, however, announced the townspeople’s brief scene with aplomb.