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Pictures: Wan Tan Cheah

Don Pasquale

Opera Novella

Midland Arts Centre


Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) – the Italian boys’ name, sometimes spelt with a ‘C’, means simply from Gaete’, a town in Southern Italy, although he was actually born in the North – is credited with composing, in his brief half-century, between 65 and 75 operas depending on your source: some include as ‘opera’ stageworks that may not qualify; but more likely it is because some were revisions, i.e. second versions of an existing opera. He had another go quite often.

He is known best, surely, for his massively intense historical operas. Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart), which depicts the final interview and fall-out between Mary and Queen Elizabeth and Dom Sébastien, his last and largely neglected opera, which was given new life and vast weight by a Royal Opera House production a few years ago.

Contemporary with Rossini and (the great) Bellini, he was one of the forerunners of Verdi, and in some people’s opinion (mine included) just as fine a composer. Hence Lucia di Lammermoor, Alfred the Great, Ann Boleyn, Rosamund of England (involving Henry II, his queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Clifford family who for years dominated the north) and Emilia of Liverpool (who?).

Interestingly, he loved English subjects, Sir Walter Scott being a special favourite – though the story is set largely in Italy - Elizabeth I again (at the massive Kenilworth Castle, owned by a favourite, Robert Dudley), and Roberto Devereux (her last favourite, Essex) all appear in his considerable oeuvre.

But amid the intensity and horror, Donizetti he also did comedy (‘opera buffa’ is one term). In 1819-20 he composed three comic operas in a row. L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) is one that appears endlessly in the repertoire. A number are dubbed ‘semi-serious’, however Don Pasquale, a late work (1843) has now almost equalled it. It’s funny, it’s sharp, it’s sometimes a bit crazy: you can see why it’s become popular with audiences and opera companies alike.

You certainly could here. This was a terrific production by director Janet Phillips. The acting was uniformly alive and cheeky - the usual five for this period, down to the finance supplied by royal or aristocratic sponsors (Mozart had rather more at the Viennese regal court) - here three boys and two girls, were uniformly good and sometimes original and inventive, both when directed (pretty closely) and when improvising, always artfully.

Don Pasquale Mid

Michael Lam in the title role, though perhaps not as entertaining as Richard Stuart (English National Opera’s regular star in Gilbert and Sullivan as well), has a lovely voice, baritone merging into bass, which impressed every single time he opened his mouth. Comparably fine, and a little more characterful (as he has to be) was Yuen Howang as ‘Malfie’ (Malfitano in the original), But the singing of both had poise and flexibility AND character.

By now I was somewhat – well, a lot – reminded of the shenanigans of the student company Opera Warwick, whose work is always likewise inventive, their comedy quite ingenious, yet their Coronation of Poppea – dark horror spiced with spattered wit – was quite superb too.  

Opera Novella are a great find. They have just these qualities, fizz and pzazz in buckets, cheekiness that never falls into the banal, plus vocal and visual precision that holds you – well mostly – agog. Phillips moves them very subtly, a sidle here, a venture (or occasional adventure) there, lots of mapped out little moves and circlings that looked carefully rehearsed to me, yet she contrived to make them, more often than not, neatly relevant to plot or text. That plot, incidentally is by Felice Romani, who succeeded the great Salvadore Cammarano as one of Donizetti’s collaborators – and went on to be Verdi’s chief collaborator. Romani already knew perfectly well what he was doing, and what the needs of great opera were.

I thought the Set (3 credits) and especially Properties (Sue Cash) even though only a few scattered pieces of furniture, some of which could be sat upon and all of which could be circumvented, hence the variety, really served its purpose well. The MAC as a venue provided just the right kind of intimacy for such an undertaking.

But one has to praise – surely above all – the Musical Director, Tim Harding, a safe pair of hands if ever there was one. Just a couple of paces felt a little stretched out for the audience, perhaps; but he was absolutely on top of it all. The detail that came from - or that he prised from – a very small ensemble – double bass, cello, keyboard, single violin, some exquisite solo or duet obligati for flute (Claire-Louise Appleby) and clarinet (Liz Oughton), and some gorgeous appearances out of the textures by horn (Cath Cordey-Butler) seemed to be astutely balanced by Harding, who must have done a lot of hard work as chief repetiteur (rehearsal pianist).

Claire Hollocks made a neat Despina-like - from Cosi fan tutte - character out of the soubrette, here theatrical 'dresser', Marie: she could have overacted, but stayed just the right side of comedy largely avoiding becoming too obtrusive. I liked the amorous nephew 'Ernest' (Donizetti's Ernesto), a smaller but pleasingly telling role for tenor Roger Paterson, the more realistic rival to Pasquale for Norina's hand. Finally as Norina herself, the opera's heroine and subject of universal attention, Roxanne Korda was ABSOLUTELY STUNNING. What a fabulous, rich, exciting voice, managing coloratura at both ends. She should be up there with the best; and I bet you she will be.

Roderic Dunnett


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