“It’s a hard lesson,” explains Norina, justifying her behaviour as ‘Sofronia’ in teaching elderly bachelor Don Pasquale for wanting to marry. In Mariame Clément’s Glyndebourne production, revived here for the Tour, it is a lesson dealt out particularly harshly, viciously even. Don Pasquale is billed as a dramma buffo, but there’s little about the situation which is funny. Despite a spirited performance right from the overture’s opening guffaw to its moralising epilogue, Clément only heightens the cruelty, making it an opera that’s hard to love.

José Fardilha (Don Pasquale) and Eliana Pretorian (Norina) © Tristram Kenton
José Fardilha (Don Pasquale) and Eliana Pretorian (Norina)
© Tristram Kenton

There are moments in Falstaff where the Merry Wives’ revenge grows uncomfortable, yet ultimately Verdi’s opera is a comic masterpiece because we laugh with Falstaff rather than at him. Here, that’s not the case. Initially, we laugh at Don Pasquale. By the end, we feel sympathy for the old buffer precisely because the other characters are still laughing at him and have treated him so cruelly. At the centre of all the intrigues is Dr Malatesta, here a shadowy figure who creeps through the revolving set during the overture, observing all the other characters asleep. He manipulates Don Pasquale into marrying his “younger sister”. Here, Malatesta’s relationship with Norina is highly questionable. They share a few provocative moments – they even share a bubble bath (though fully clothed!). Norina is described as “a youthful widow” and here you begin to wonder exactly how her previous husband met his end.

Eliana Pretorian (Norina) and John Brancy (Malatesta) © Tristram Kenton
Eliana Pretorian (Norina) and John Brancy (Malatesta)
© Tristram Kenton

Paul Higgins directed this revival, yet Clément was on hand to take the opening night curtain call. She describes in a programme note how “We aimed at avoiding cheap laughs and heavy-handed slapstick”. I’d hate to see what her idea of slapstick constitutes, for the humour was played pretty broadly here. Few of the sight gags worked and the bullying of Don Pasquale often took on a physical form, culminating in Norina slapping him and smashing a bunch of flowers over his head. Even the role of the chorus becomes vindinctive. Donizetti casts them as a bunch of freshly recruited servants, gossiping about the goings-on “upstairs”. Here, Clément has them as dandified theatregoers dressed all in white, like a gaggle of albino geese. As outside observers, they delight in the unfolding scandal.

Duncan Ward led a bracing account of the score, the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra woodwinds delighting in its many felicities, plus a splendid trumpet solo at the start of Act II. The cast was efficient, with a couple of strong performances. I liked José Fardilha’s Don Pasquale very much, a ripe buffo, yet one who still sings rather than blusters his way through the role. Pompous, but lovable. John Brancy’s agile baritone was a little small-voiced as Malatesta, but he wrapped his tongue around the popular Act III patter duet a good deal better than Fardilha.

John Brancy (Malatesta), Eliana Pretorian (Norina) and José Fardilha (Don Pasquale) © Tristram Kenton
John Brancy (Malatesta), Eliana Pretorian (Norina) and José Fardilha (Don Pasquale)
© Tristram Kenton

Finnish tenor Tuomas Katajala was in fine fettle as Ernesto, Pasquale’s nephew and Norina’s sweetheart. He has a bright, florid tenore di grazia, but one with plenty of steel, shining in his Act II aria “Cercherò lontana terra”. Eliana Pretorian’s pert Norina was no passive young lady. In her opening scene, she reads a book, scoffing at the situation. Here, she is writing it instead, churning out Mills & Boon tosh like a true cynic. Pretorian displayed a good trill, but her soprano hardens glaringly at the top, which may suit her character, but it didn’t seem a deliberate interpretive choice.

Norina’s treatment of Don Pasquale included the viperous line “A husband should sit and keep quiet”, which drew lots of knowing laughter from the audience. If you appreciate your humour on the cruel side, there’s much in Clément’s production you’ll enjoy. 

***11