Glyndebourne Festival Opera
Genuine success: de Niese and Corbelli in Glyndebourne's Don Pasquale
© Clive Barda 2013
The last time Don Pasquale played in the Glyndebourne Festival season was back in 1939, when Norina was sung by Audrey Mildmay, the Canadian-English soprano who was the wife of the festival's founder, John Christie. In 2011, a new production of Pasquale turned up as part of the repertory of the closely associated Glyndebourne on Tour. The identical staging, by French director Mariame Clément, working with designer Julia Hansen, entered the festival proper on July 18, when Norina was sung by Danielle de Niese, the soprano who is the wife of John Christie's grandson, Gus Christie, who is Glyndebourne's executive chairman.
And a very good job she made of it, too. Following her local success as Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore in 2011, the omens looked good for a similar result. De Niese has a lot to offer as Donizetti's trickster heroine. Her voice has developed in size and security and now neatly matches the role's lyrical and coloratura demands. A stage personality of considerable presence and dramatic ingenuity, she held the audience's attention and maintained a surprising level of sympathy, even following that notoriously awkward moment in the opera's third act when Norina (as "Sofronia") slaps her elderly husband. Here she was helped by the considerable discretion of Donizetti's music, as well as by lighting designer Bernd Purkrabek, who sensitively cut the voltage at this point, highlighting the "married" couple's individual reactions.
De Niese's victim in this shocking episode of senior abuse was Alessandro Corbelli, surely the finest buffo around today and a master of comedy who refuses to mock the characters he plays; here Don Pasquale's predicament — brought about through his own desire to punish his nephew's disobedience — was touchingly real, and yet never distanced from the comedic mode. Add in his verbal dexterity (most notably displayed in his patter duet "Cheti, cheti," with Belorussian baritone Nikolay Borchev's Malatesta) and his widely variegated tonal inflections, and it is little surprise that Corbelli made such an unforgettable impression.
Borchev sang with pleasing lyricism in "Bella siccome un angelo," and indeed throughout, his clean and direct medium-scale baritone proving a fine fit for this role in this venue. Dramatically, he was the lynchpin of Clément's show, which provided an unusual take on Donizetti's comedy. For a start, though she played the piece in-period, it was not the period contemporary with Donizetti's opera (1843) represented in the work's initial production and since traditional; instead, she plumped for the eighteenth century, in a rare instance of setting the visual clock not forward but back. On their appearances — somewhat increased from statutory requirements, since they sang on- rather than offstage to accompany Ernesto's serenade at the beginning of the final scene — the chorus was dressed in dazzling white wigs and costumes, like aristocrats of the ancien régime on a Watteauesque spree. The back-dating, nevertheless, did no harm.
More controversial was the suggestion that Malatesta's relationship with Norina was no innocent matter of bringing her together with Ernesto but something altogether more complex and intimate. Clément's 2011 touring version of the piece even had the two sweeping off together at the end, leaving Ernesto looking distinctly unhappy. At the 2013 festival, the director was content with a highly meaningful look exchanged between them at this point — though earlier, at the end of Malatesta's rehearsal of Sofronia's modest-bride routine, he had joined a half-protesting Norina in her bathtub, with the curtain immediately falling to shield their closest secrets from the audience's gaze; thus a further layer of intrigue was added to those already present — wittily, yet disturbingly, and if wrongly, then at least fascinatingly so.
The scheduled Ernesto, Alek Shrader, was unwell; he was replaced on the first night by the Sicilian Enea Scala, who had sung the role in the touring production in 2011. His bright, sizable tenor was used to powerful effect, if with a less than ideal level of charm in the score's more graceful sections; but he was dramatically very much in the center of the picture. For all its idiosyncrasies, Clément's staging was a genuine success, bolstered by the idiomatic conducting of Enrique Mazzola, who made sure that the score fairly danced along, and without any false steps.
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