When newlywed “Sofronia” slaps Don Pasquale and it provokes titters of laughter, you’ve got a problem. It’s the point in Act 3 where the lesson that the elderly bachelor is being taught for disinheriting his nephew by taking a young wife himself crosses the line from prank into cruelty. In Donizetti’s opera buffa, it’s the one moment which is absolutely no laughing matter. Damiano Michieletto’s new production for The Royal Opera does have Don Pasquale as victim – often cutting the pathetic figure of an ageing, pill-popping guy who just misses his mum – but asks us to laugh at him anyway.

Bryn Terfel (Don Pasquale)
© ROH | Clive Barda

It’s a cruel comedy. Fifty years after its premiere, Verdi covered much the same ground, but seasoned his razor-sharp wit with autumnal warmth and good humour. In Falstaff we laugh with the fat knight (“My wit creates the wit of others”), but in Don Pasquale, Donizetti asks us to laugh at him. Until, that is, all is revealed and the relieved Pasquale swiftly forgives the pranksters and grants his blessing for Ernesto to wed his beloved Norina. But Michieletto’s future for Pasquale? Dump him in a wheelchair and cart him off to an old people’s home. Savage.

The Italian director claims to have changed much of the production since it opened at Opéra de Paris earlier this year. Comedy is subjective, of course, and many found it extremely funny, but I found it a staging with its fair share of misfires, not least the set itself. Paolo Fantin neatly creates Pasquale’s house on a revolve, rooms signified by minimal props – bed, sofa, kitchen table – the space demarcated by doors which the cast spend an inordinate amount of time opening, closing or eavesdropping behind. As “Sofronia” blings up the place in Act 3, sparing no expense, the makeover is dazzling. But not as dazzling as the roof and chimney created with Alessandro Carletti’s cold, neon-strip lighting suspended above the set for much of the evening, blinding the eyes every time they attempted to navigate a way up to the surtitles.

Bryn Terfel (Don Pasquale) and Olga Peretyatko (Norina)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Sir Bryn Terfel’s role debut as Don Pasquale sounded every considerable inch like his ample Falstaff, relishing each nuance in the text. His bass-baritone sounds a little rough-hewn now for bel canto, though, and he looked less comfortable with some aspects of the stage business, especially with Michieletto’s frequent references to the Don’s childhood. He often clutches a photograph of his mother and we see him helping a young Pasquale blow out the candles on his birthday cake.

Olga Peretyatko made a strong impression in her house debut. There was an occasional diamond-hard edge to her upper notes, which suits the calculating Norina, but the pianissimo trill in her aria “So anch’io la virtù magica” was drop dead gorgeous. Michieletto has Norina as a wardrobe assistant on a film set and Peretyatko acted up a storm, relishing her pouting close-ups which are displayed on the green screen as Malatesta preps her for the role as Pasquale’s prospective bride.

Olga Peretyatko (Norina) and Ioan Hotea (Ernesto)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Markus Werba does not sound a natural bel canto baritone, lacking a true legato. His patter, however, in the famous tongue-twisting Pasquale–Malatesta duet, was remarkably nimble, particularly considering he and Terfel had to operate hand puppets, as if it wasn't already tricky enough. Ioan Hotea had limited appeal as Ernesto, his tenor sounding forced, with a pronounced vibrato.

Evelino Pidò offered spirited resistance in the pit, the orchestra ripping into the guffaw that launches Donizetti’s overture. If only the rest of the evening had offered as much charm and joy.