Gaetano Donizetti's commedia dell'arte-inspired Don Pasquale is one of the favourites in the opera buffa repertoire. At its ending, the assembled company boisterously enjoin us to remember that when an elderly man marries a much younger woman, no good can result.

© Fritz Curzon
© Fritz Curzon

Apparently, the same is not true of an elderly conductor joining a much younger orchestra. The said conductor was Richard Bonynge, 80 this year and recently widowed, the man credited with the enormous increase in popularity of the bel canto repertoire from the 1960s in collaboration with his wife Joan Sutherland. Under his baton, the Opera Holland Park orchestra were sensational: there was boundless energy in Donizetti's upbeat, cheerful numbers (which form the majority of Don Pasquale) and real beauty in the slower, more sentimental ones. Amongst many highlights, the overture brought the audience to its feet and the trumpet solo in the prelude to Act II and accompanying the lovelorn Ernesto's lament was breathtakingly haunting.

The orchestra members were clearly loving every minute of it - perhaps to a fault, because the singers often struggled to make themselves heard above this joyous outpouring. Donald Maxwell, as Pasquale, was the most exposed: he sounded fine when the orchestra were quiet but was lost altogether when the volume went up. The star of the evening was Colin Lee as Ernesto, whose effortless manner and clear, melodious high tenor voice are perfectly suited to the role: he has one of those voices that you can happily listen to all evening. Richard Burkhard delivered a cheerfully devious Dr Malatesta, and Majella Cullagh, as the minx-like Norina, negotiated the coloratura numbers well enough, though her voice has a hard edge at the top of its register. She got better through the evening, though, and was great in Tornami a dir che m'ami, her Act III duet with Lee (splendidly clad in a full Zorro outfit).

What set the evening apart was the quality of Stephen Barlow's direction. All of the characters, especially Maxwell, acted their socks off, with an enormous attention to detail in their movement and interaction. The setting and costumes should serve as an object lesson to other directors as to just how much you can do with a limited budget (augmented, one suspects, by some artful product placement) and no stage equipment, despite which Barlow provided a stack of innovation and fun which completely supported the heart of the opera rather than distracting from it.

Pasquale's home is a somewhat shambolic seaside fish-and-chip shop: the audience is in the sea, looking at it across the beach and the promenade. A series of visual gags are added by various characters who walk across the promenade from time to time. My favourite was when Pasquale is fantasising about all the children he's going to have with his bride-to-be and hands a lollipop to a baby in a pram being looked after by its father. The returning "mother" turns out to be the other half of a gay couple, and Maxwell's double-take was a delight to behold. Another glorious detail was the point when an attendant turfs the penniless Ernesto off a deckchair that he can't afford, whereupon he sits down at the bench of a picnicking elderly couple, who duly pack up and leave in disgust.

These were topped by two showstopping pieces of staging. The first was the moment at which Norina, masquerading as Malatesta's convent-raised sister, "takes off her veil" after much persuasion by Pasquale. In this production, she is clad in a full length nun's habit which is penguin-coloured except for (one noticed) the oddly red shoes: Norina flings off the habit to reveal a curvaceous bright scarlet dress, which all but gives Pasquale a heart attack. The second showstopper was Aspetta, aspetta, Pasquale and Malatesta's Act III duet, which was so winningly choreographed in Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly style that you could forgive the fact that the patter singing was completely drowned by the orchestra.

One can complain that (Lee apart), the singing wasn't up to the very highest standards, but this production of Don Pasquale combined Barlow's fabulously inventive stage direction with Donizetti's irrepressible music and a conductor who extracted every last ounce of gaiety and good cheer that it contains. For a summer evening's entertainment, it will be hard to beat.