One’s upbringing to respect the elderly is challenged in a farcical, not so far-fetched family matter in Opera Australia’s new production (to Melbourne) of Gaetano Donizetti’s masterwork of mid-19th century opera buffa, Don Pasquale. It’s an entertainingly taut staging propelled by four sparkling principal soloists and music to delight in as it premières an intimate display of the company’s excellence in artistic and creative vigour.

Conal Coad (Don Pasquale) © Jeff Busby
Conal Coad (Don Pasquale)
© Jeff Busby

Premièred in Paris in 1843, Donizetti’s rollickingly effervescent score and its tightly woven libretto still remain fresh. To captivate a modern audience, however, director Roger Hodgman and set/costume designer Richard Roberts draw inspiration from the cinematic splendour of William Wyler’s 1953 film, Roman Holiday, comfortably resting the story in the city of the opera’s original setting of early 19th century Rome.

A giant poster-perfect 1950s advertisement of the opera/film fills the proscenium to greet the audience and as it rises after the lively overture, a Vespa scoots across a piazza featuring an outdoor café, giving much promise. Roman Holiday associations seem to weaken there, passing off as a gimmick. Despite the ingenuity of the three-part sets that revolve in eye-catching unison to create interior and exterior spaces under Matt Scott’s ever-dramatic lighting, it appeared Rome was holidaying in the environs of a gated residential compound in Miami.

That’s not to say that the production falters on this account. With characters hovering between the stylishly progressive and the stiffly formal conservative, the visual ensemble keenly invigorates a plot that has its roots in the traditions of the Commedia dell’arte, delivered with a dramatic flow and energetic acting that never waned.

Ernesto and Norina, are in love and wish to be married, but Ernesto’s old rich uncle, Don Pasquale, tries to prevent this from happening, daring to disinherit Ernesto and marry a young bride via the services of his advisor, Dr Malatesta. Unbeknown to Pasquale, Malatesta is out to teach Pasquale a lesson and schemes with the lovers to eventually arrive at the typically happy ending, not without much topsy-turvy melodrama and heaps of witty charm. Modern day Hollywood itself contains a wealth of the wealthy-old-marries-young stories, Italy had a recent Prime Minister that might fit the bill and Australia has a vastly rich Italian community with its chic urban settings (ok, I’m thinking Carlton’s Lygon Street in Melbourne), so when one decides to update a story that’s able to easily abandon its original setting, why not truly update it?

Rachelle Durkin (Norina) and chorus © Jeff Busby
Rachelle Durkin (Norina) and chorus
© Jeff Busby

Nonetheless, Hodgman’s direction achieves a perfect marriage with the intoxicating musical framework established by conductor Guillaume Tourniaire. From the warm and vibrant overture, Tourniaire whips up Donizetti’s score with delightful vivaciousness, musically teasing the onstage drama and being teased in return, shaping impeccable dynamics with the vocalists and showcasing Orchestra Victoria at its best. Principal trumpeter Mark Fitzpatrick even heads onstage to busk as Ernesto is thrown out of Pasquale’s house in a mournful, moving but somewhat amusing scene.

As the love-struck couple, Rachelle Durkin’s self-confident and lithely, minx-like Norina (and her over the top, nervously coy masquerade as Malatesta’s sister, Sofronia) and John Longmuir’s teddy-bear-hugging but appropriately earnest Ernesto, are convincingly matched and vocally impressive. Durkin’s peachy, radiant and buoyant soprano frolics about the music stave with an intensely breezy appeal, trilling and thrilling from start to finish. Longmuir’s vocal charisma is immediate. Dextrous, emotive and powerful, Longmuir’s chameleon-like tenor can colour-match the orchestral picture with elegant masculinity, projecting with largesse on and off stage and enrapturing with an especially attractive throated zing. Marginal troubles appear at the lengthiest high notes but there’s no doubting the voice's star quality.

John Longmuir (Ernesto) Rachelle Durkin (Norina) Conal Coad (Don Pasquale) Samuel Dundas (Malatesta) © Jeff Busby
John Longmuir (Ernesto) Rachelle Durkin (Norina) Conal Coad (Don Pasquale) Samuel Dundas (Malatesta)
© Jeff Busby

To match his dapperly agile and likeable Malatesta, Samuel Dundas displays a suave and peppy rich, broad baritone. A borderline cheeky attraction between Dundas and Durkin adds additional sparkle. Benjamin Rasheed makes a comically thuggish notary but it’s the caricaturized grandeur of Conal Coad’s rotund, eponymous Don Pasquale that fills the performance with fodder for the heart and soul. Despite losing his bass instrument in the lowest lows and being stretched in the highest range, the voice’s fortified maturity is a treasure to suit the septuagenarian Pasquale.

Over its three acts, all sorts of vocal/character permutations explode on the stage with arias, duets, trios and quartets, though the latter two at times lack balance. And among its numerous musical gems, it’s impossible not to be endeared by Pasquale and Malatesta’s brilliant Act III pitter-patter duet "Aspetta, aspetta, cara sposina" and Ernesto and Norina’s "Tornami a dir che m'ami". Finally in Act III, a small Opera Australia Chorus of ebulliently-voiced servants appear to briefly but momentously percolate below the drama.

In the finale, we learn the opera’s moral, “The man who marries when he’s old is weak in the head”. Along the way, however, it seems that those dear to us are those we might double-cross in order to achieve our desired outcome. Donizetti says teach those old folk a lesson when it’s for their own good. It makes me wonder who the next Don Pasquale will be and where he’ll appear. 




****1