Opera Australia’s Don Pasquale is alive and joyous. Without dismissing a note of Gaetamo Donizetti’s opera, everyone on the stage and in the pit finds that little bit of extra love that lets everyone find the pure fun of being in and going to the opera.
Dobizetti’s opera was first performed in 1843 and is based on recognisable and still-used Commedia dell’arte character tropes.
Unmarried and childless Don Pasquale (Conal Coad) doesn’t want his nephew Ernesto (John Longmuir) to inherit everything, so he conspires with his friend Dr Malatesta (Samuel Dundas) to marry the doctor’s young sister and send Ernesto packing. But Malatesta isn’t as good a friend as he appears and conspires with Ernesto’s girlfriend Norina (Rachelle Durkin) to pretend that she’s his straight-from-the-convent sister and they set up a fake ceremony to make Don P think they are wed.
Director Roger Hodgman and designer Richard Roberts have set it in 1950s Rome to keep the original setting and show how little really changes. Inspired by the film Roman Holiday, the costumes are enough to inspire a retro revival of super-high-waist pants, cat-eye sunnies and pastel baggy suits (and there’s a get-the-look-guide on The Opera Blog), and the tone remembers that social attitudes in the 1950s weren’t as stuffy as we remember.
Hodgman’s direction lets the cast – all singers who make us want to hear more of them – work with the music to find the truth that connects them to their characters. Coad’s frumpy and optimistic old man ensures that the audience are on his side and want him to win, despite his pompous behaviour and unrealistic expectations, and Longmuir and Dundas are equal foes to Don P.
However, Durkin’s Norina is the unforgettable performance. Her singing is as clear and perfect as the first sip of cold Moscato as the sun sets on a summer day, and she lets Norina be a woman who rejects any societal shame in loving men, embraces her sexuality and is always in charge of her own destiny.
Even the chorus are alive as everyone brings character to the stage, and Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Guillaume Tourniaire, create and support the on-stage tone without forgetting that opera only comes to life with music that respects the composer.
Opera Australia have three operas Melbourne until early December (plus Tosca and Falstaff). Opera is often perceived as being an elite art where old men snore next to their subscription-buying spouses. Some of this is true (I think some come just for the nice sleep that have in a comfy chair), but let’s break down these barriers. Opera Australia have lots of info on their webpage that can help first-timers and if more people support this art form, even more will be broken and we might begin to see how opera really is for everyone.