There were a number of debuts at the opening performance of Don Pasquale at this year’s Longborough Festival Opera. It was the first year that any Donizetti work has been performed here and the loyal audience were also introduced to two highly promising talents in conductor Thomas Blunt and soprano Susanna Hurrell. While one of the main production ideas was either under-developed or ill-conceived, the performances of conductor and cast ensured a successful evening, with Hurrell in particular establishing herself as an artist to follow with interest.

Don Pasquale was a good choice by Longborough to introduce Donizetti to the Festival Opera house. The small scale setting, light theme and minimal cast were ideal for the intimacy of the five hundred seat theatre. The feel-good factor that is endemic in opera buffa promised to perfectly complement the warm summer sun with picnics and Pimms in this wonderfully scenic spot in the Cotswolds. The lightness of Pasquale also provides some relief after Wagner’s Tristan Und Isolde and running alongside Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Conductor Thomas Blunt made a confident opening with the overture as ensemble members in 1930s dress created a play-within-a-play. It became clear that the audience would be watching both Don Pasquale - The Opera, while a ‘Golden Era of Hollywood’ film crew would be simultaneously making Don Pasquale - The Movie. This was a bold creative choice for the setting, and a slightly odd one. The plot does not naturally lend itself to meta-theatre and the location and era seemed entirely random. Director Alan Privett described his setting decision, loosely relating it “to Downtown Abbey as an easy reference point – where the plot is played out as it were to a camera.” The advantage of the approach was that it facilitated some smooth and innovative set changes between scenes. Together with Blunt keeping the orchestra revving, these changes were almost seamless and the momentum of the drama was maintained throughout. The drawback, however, was that the insights into the crew’s offstage private moments were distracting, irrelevant and at one point mildly irritating. Furthermore, after the interval the film studio crew had all but disappeared, reappearing as Pasquale’s servants, and the movie-making sub-plot was never quite concluded nor resolved. Overall that aspect of the production didn’t come off, which is a shame as it detracted slightly from some fine vocal and acting performances.

David Stout’s robust baritone was well suited to the pomposity of the title role, his depiction of stock character was in keeping with the tradition of commedia dell’arte while avoiding the trappings of cliché, and his comic timing was spot on. He was able to demonstrate the power of his voice throughout the range with his rich and vibrant low register being equal to Blunt’s demands.

Welsh baritone Gary Griffiths did a sterling job as Dr Malatesta. The deviousness of his character’s role suited his equally strong, but slightly softer, voice. He correctly judged and portrayed the meddlesome doctor as a good-hearted mischief-maker rather than a pantomime baddy, which worked well in conveying the conviviality of the opera.

Don Pasquale’s nephew, Ernesto, was played convincingly by Spanish tenor Jesús Álvarez. His enthusiasm for the role came across well in the first two acts, and he really came into his own in Act III when he was able to show the great tenderness in his tone. His romantic duet with Norina was one of the evening’s highlights.

Indeed, almost every appearance of Susanna Hurrell as Norina was a highlight. She is a soprano with the whole package. Her beautiful voice is multi-faceted, powerful and expressive. Moreover, she owns the stage with terrific charismatic presence and acting ability, and her quick wit in interpreting Norina had me chuckling aloud on several occasions.

Despite my reservations about the 1930s movie set, these fine singers and actors exploited the charm of Longborough for all its worth, and made for a very enjoyable evening.