Staging an opera outdoors in Ireland is somewhat the equivalent of playing Russian roulette with the weather. Fortunately the rain clouds that threatened during the afternoon rolled away and we were able to enjoy Blackwater Valley Opera Festival’s entertaining production of Donizetti opera Don Pasquale in the soft gloaming in the ancient grounds of Lismore Castle in County Waterford.

Michele Govi (Don Pasquale), Aoife Gibney (Norina) and Emmett O'Hanlon (Malatesta)
© SM Michele Govi_Aoife Gibney_Emmett O Hanlon copy

While Donizetti’s romantic comic operas are generally light-hearted affairs, I feel that there is a cruel streak in Don Pasquale, something that director Pierre-Emmanuel Rousseau did bring to the fore amid the layers of comedy and farce. Malatesta relentless baiting of his old friend took on an extra element of maliciousness with the invention of Malatesta’s affair with the heroine Norina. Indeed there was a distinct element of doubt about the traditional happy ending of the future nuptials of Norina and hero Ernesto at the end of the opera, as Norina gives Malatesta a lingering embrace and Ernesto’s face became contorted with gnawing jealousy.

Aoife Gibney (Norina)
© Ste Murray

Slawek Narwid’s set and costume designs were mostly effective, though at times puzzling, with the use of the Castle’s stables being put to very good effect. Plum, velvet dinner jacket suited the doddery bachelor Pasquale, while the harridan Norina/Sofronia went from saucy negligées to ball gowns reflecting the rise in her fortunes. Dr Malatesta was dressed in a yellow, sleazy, pimp suit, an admittedly odd choice for a doctor, and straining our credulity that the wealthy Don Pasquale would either have associated himself with someone like that or followed his advice, but certainly in keeping with Rousseau’s darker vision of the work. Narwid had Norina living in a caravan, which served a twofold purpose: it gave credence to the fact that Norina was impoverished and would have agreed to marry Don Pasquale for monetary gain; it also usefully served as a lover’s tryst to comic effect.

Manuel Nuñez Camelino (Ernesto)
© Ste Murray

Vocally, the cast was strong. Michele Govi as Don Pasquale possessed wonderfully acting skills, from the slight shake in his hand to sciatic pain in his back, he depicted this stock character brilliantly throughout. His voice was strong and supple and his diction pellucid. His most impressive moments came in Act 3 with Malatesta (Emmett O'Hanlon) in their duet “Cheti, cheti immantinente” where they raced through their patter number at an astounding speed. O’Hanlon’s baritone voice oozed power and confidence as he swaggered around the stage manipulating one and all.

Aoife Gibney embraced the complexities of her role admirably, flouncing around the stables, playing one man off another, and despite singing about not wanting to hurt her lover Ernesto, both her actions with Malatesta and her acquisitive, cold-hearted approach to life in general gave the lie to this. Vocally, she settled nicely into her role, her coloratura finely deployed showing an impressively high range. Power and versatility rather than sweet lyricism characterised her voice which rather suited the harridan’s role, and even in her love duet with Ernesto the absence of vocal tenderness added to the dramatic tension that served as a presage of their future together.

Aoife Gibney (Norina) and Emmett O’Hanlon (Malatesta)
© Ste Murray

Argentinian tenor Manuel Nuñez Camelino depicted a suitably wimpish Ernesto. Appearing firstly as an abstract artist doing his morning yoga, Nuñez-Camelino sang brightly though he seemed to force his tone in order to project. The Act 3 off-stage and then on-stage serenade of Norina didn’t soar as effortlessly as it needs to.

The only minor role was the notary Carlino sung by soprano Sandra Oman who fussed brilliantly from her wheelchair. The chorus, dressed as waiters and maids, added some nice comic touches and sung their “Che interminabile andirivieni” number with vim and vigour.

Darren Hargan conducted well with the sparse forces of the Blackwater Valley Opera Festival Chamber Orchestra, (one musician per part with the odd doubling up) and the unusual acoustics of the stable courtyard and a marquee. At times the night air seemed to affect the tuning of some instruments. Special commendation goes to the trumpeter who provided a wistful accompaniment to Ernesto’s lament in Act 2.

All in all, this was an entertaining if slightly cruel account of Don Pasquale.