The New National Theatre's new season opened at the end of September with a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. This month it has turned to Donizetti’s jolly Don Pasquale in a staging that is new to Tokyo, but already seen widely in Italy, including at La Scala. In fact, bel canto works have not been staple repertoire (their only previous Donizetti were Lucia di Lammermoor and L’elisir d’amore) and is was the first time Don Pasquale was produced in the 20+ years of its history. Perhaps this explained the rather subdued reaction of the audience despite a sparkling vocal performance by a fine cast, or perhaps the story of a rich old man finding a wife in order to disinherit his nephew didn’t quite appeal to the Japanese audience.

Roberto Scandiuzzi (Don Pasquale)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre Tokyo

Stefano Vizioli’s production is as orthodox and classical as one can get. Yes, he chooses the era slightly preceding the setting indicated by Donizetti, but only because he prefers the costumes to be in the Empire style. Otherwise the production takes the libretto at face value. The set is elegant but compact, consisting of a neat movable structure that opens and closes, serving as both the interior and the exterior of Pasquale’s quaint old mansion. Beyond the house is a sunny seaside promenade, where Dr Malatesta meets Norina and hatches the plan to dupe Don Pasquale so that she can marry Ernesto, Pasquale’s nephew.

Vizioli’s production is also noticeably free from caricature or cynicism. Sung by renowned Italian bass Roberto Scandiuzzi, this Pasquale is portrayed as a good-natured man, if slightly foolish, who has momentarily lost his senses in his old age. As fans of the bass singer are aware, Scandiuzzi is more of a Verdian bass rather than a typical buffo, with serious roles such as Fiesco, Filippo and Ramfis to his credit, and he has only taken on buffo roles relatively recently. In an interview for this production, he says that “I am a serious type of bass and not a basso comico. Don Pasquale shouldn’t act the fool – instead it’s his seriousness that causes the laughter. In that sense, I think the role suits my voice very well.”

Roberto Scandiuzzi, Hasmik Torosyan, Biagio Pizzuti (Malatesta) and Maxim Mironov (Ernesto)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre Tokyo

This was indeed how Scandiuzzi sang Pasquale – straight, very little buffoonery and with a hint of nobility. His deep and resonant voice took a while to warm up – he lagged behind the orchestra a little at first – but by the patter duet with Dr Malatesta – with those dizzying tongue-twisters – he was in his element. Meanwhile, the baritone Biagio Pizzuti as the scheming doctor easily held his own against the veteran bass. He entertained us with charm and agility, and his suave, sonorous voice was certainly the most naturally bel canto of the four singers. In this opera, there are a lot of “asides” to deal with, but he sang them with ease and perfect comic timing.

Norina was sung by the young Armenian soprano Hasmik Torosyan, who replaced the originally billed Danielle de Niese (who pulled out because she jumped in for Bartoli at La Scala). Torosyan seems to be one of the many coloratura sopranos emerging from the East, and her bel canto repertoire includes Adina, Amina and Marie. She is certainly a lively and confident singer with an assured technique and high notes, but I found the voice a little hard-edged. Norina is a not an easy character to love, and she needs a little more vocal charm and flirtatiousness to engage the audience.

Hasmik Torosyan (Norina)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre Tokyo

Russian Rossini specialist Maxim Mironov made a welcome return to the New National Theatre stage after a hugely successful Barbiere in 2016. It’s a youthful, light and lyrical voice with boyish charm, but not a big voice so in the ensembles he could be overpowered by the other singers and the orchestra. In his solo scenes, however, he sang the lovesick youth perfectly; his off-stage serenata in the garden in Act 3 was tenderly sung, with the bonus attraction of being accompanied by popular solo guitarist Soichi Muraji, and the duet with Norina provided a moment of pure romance.

In the pit, Bergamo-born Corrados Rovaris kept things moving smoothly. The Tokyo Philharmonic generally played with fluency and with good grasp of the idiom, and there were some nice solo contributions from the woodwinds and the trumpet.

A stylish and elegant vocal performances all around, then, but perhaps a little too polite and straight, and not quite funny enough for us to yield wholeheartedly to the silliness of the comedy. I felt the audience was too polite too (maybe they aren't used to this opera yet) – perhaps more laughter and response may have enlivened the mood on the stage. Let’s hope thing will perk up a bit more in the subsequent performances.