Garden Opera: Don Pasquale

Another August Bank Holiday, another Garden Opera performance in the magical setting of the Observatory Garden in Greenwich… (so it must be a year since I started this blog!  Hey!  Happy birthday to me!)

Alas, no idyllic weather this time, but at least the rain held off.  The audience was enthusiastic but not a full ‘house’ – where were the Burghers of Blackheath?  Not all in Tuscany, surely?  Perhaps put off by the weather, or by the relatively unfamiliar opera on offer?

Donizetti is mostly known for his prolific output of bel canto operas on serious or historical subjects, but he was also a dab hand at comedy, managing to combine swift-flowing action with hilarious patter songs, gentle lyricism and (as my friend Diana noted) some eyebrow-raising sudden key-changes.

Ernesto, the tenor lead, has probably the hardest task in Don Pasquale, having to play the soulful romantic while all about him are embroiled in comedy.  Alexander Anderson-Hall rose bravely to the challenge, having to work hard at times but to fine effect.  He could also ‘do’ the comedy when required.

Catherine May, as Norina, was a treasure – huge expressive eyes conveying every nuance of surprise, horror, complicity, teasing, play-acting and genuine affection.  And she could do the high notes too!

James McOran-Campbell, charismatic as ever (and with a green corduroy three-piece suit to die for), made Dr Malatesta into an untypically youthful but convincing and very funny conspirator.  Last but not least, as the eponymous Don Pasquale Deryck Hamon was a hoot – all arms and legs in confusion, infuriatingly pompous, ridiculous when trying to be ‘with it’, yet winning our sympathy for his plight.  And he had the low notes…

Bernie Lafontaine provided deft orchestrations for his hard-working six-piece band, which once again sounded convincingly like a whole orchestra.

Stage direction was by Duncan Macfarland (of the Royal Opera House) who updated the action to the ‘late 1970s’, explaining that it was a time when 1960s counter-culture collided head-on with the bourgeois values of middle England, thus enabling him to retain the conflicts of the original while playing down the now-unacceptable social stereotypes of Donizetti’s day.  (This did mean losing the bite of the final ‘moral’, in which ‘When an old man wants to marry, he’ll only make a fool of himself’ became something harmless about ‘losing a guidebook’…)

Designers Neil Irish (sets) and Dulcie Best (costumes) rose to the challenge brilliantly.  Some of it, to be honest, did look more 1960s than 1970s – not to give too much away, there was a bean bag, a pink sofa and a fluffy telephone – but in general the tone was spot on.  Ernesto, banished from his uncle’s house and fortune, packs his bags with an eye-watering collection of 1970s psychedelic underwear (where does Dulcie find this stuff?) – the audience’s laughter unfortunately muffling David Clewlow’s impeccably played trumpet solo.

I won’t give away too much of the plot, in case you haven’t seen it yet and can still manage to get to any of the last few summer performances around the country (or the winter reprises).  Suffice it to say that you will be in stitches.  Duncan Macfarland’s Personenregie (as we posh opera aficionados would call it) is finely observed – every little reaction, change of heart, aside or double-take is clearly visible – and, as we all know, comedy is the most difficult form of theatre to bring off.

David Parry’s witty English translation came over brilliantly.  The singers were miked, which was a bit of a shock at first but is a sensible solution to the problems of being heard in outdoor settings of various sizes, with unpredictable competition from the weather, passing helicopters and ‘noises off’.  Sung recitative was largely replaced by spoken dialogue, which tended to sound stilted but worked very well in getting the story across.

The sets could not be simpler, but are completely effective (watch for the instant transformation into the final garden scene).  The chorus is dispensed with, but it was hard to spot any cuts in the music otherwise – and the ‘extras’ playing the butler and the supposed notary were brilliant.  (Incidentally it struck me as very subversive of Donizetti and his librettist that the plot is propelled forward by the ‘notary’, who, instead of sticking to his script, suddenly demands an extra witness to the mock wedding ceremony, thus embroiling Ernesto in the plot…)

Another triumph for this inventive, enterprising and talented company.  Let’s hope the weather and the economic downturn don’t put too much of a damper on their operations.

May thanks to Lucy and Nicola for fixing the tickets (and for your company).  To Diana for coming along and making the occasion go with a swing.  And to her chum Rebecca in the band for your company too.

Garden Opera needs our support!  Do try to get to a performance if you can, and in any case go to their website and see what they are up to.  And if you win the lottery I’m sure Peter Bridges will be glad to hear from you…

Explore posts in the same categories: Blackheath, Greenwich, music, opera, Uncategorized

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3 Comments on “Garden Opera: Don Pasquale”

  1. diana bickley Says:

    All spot on! I can only hope that people are encouraged to go and see GARDEN OPERA after reading your blog. It is certainly a company that produces the goods in style – whatever the style required maybe (La Boheme last year was equally as good as Don Pasquale and caught the spirit of the age and the intense emotions of the characters very convincingly).

  2. […] public links >> trumpet Garden Opera: Don Pasquale Saved by christopherllc on Fri 31-10-2008 Album reviews: Backyard Tire Fire & The Week That […]

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