The word “frothy” is often used to describe Donizetti’s romantic comedies, but the only froth on offer in Mariame Clément’s Glyndebourne Don Pasquale is in the bubble bath shared by Norina and – yes – Malatesta, towards the end of Act 1. Clément takes a dark view of the opera, playing up Malatesta’s cynicism and turning the baiting of Pasquale into something akin to a blood sport. The suggestion that Malatesta and Norina have been having an affair all along weighs heavily on Act 1, to be reinforced at the supposedly happy ending in which Norina’s simple glance at the Doctor makes us fear for the prospects of Ernesto’s future bliss.

Renato Girolami (Don Pasquale) and Chorus © Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne Opera
Renato Girolami (Don Pasquale) and Chorus
© Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne Opera

With the exception of this invented relationship, Clément’s approach is totally consonant with Angelo Anelli’s libretto: the cruelty is all there in the text. And it’s executed highly effectively. Some nifty work by the stagehands makes Julia Hansen’s revolving set turn into a series of rooms with various tricks to heighten the bedroom farce feel – yet each room is somewhat spartan, with few of the comforts of an elderly bachelor’s home. The period costumes are treated as naturally as modern dress until the chorus come on: all in white, with white face paint, powder and wigs, a fluttering of white fans lending a surreal, ghostly air to proceedings. And the actors/singers throw themselves into their parts: Renato Girolami’s Pasquale blustering helplessly, Andrey Zhilikhovsky’s Malatesta suffused with sadistic joy at the dénouement of his plans as much as pleasure at their successful outcome, Lisette Oropesa’s Norina all too credible in her harridan persona, Andrew Stenson’s Ernesto airily ineffectual, Anna-Marie Sullivan’s non-singing servant oozing disapproval from pursed lips.

Lisette Oropesa (Norina), Andrey Zhilikovsky (Dr. Malatesta) © Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne Opera
Lisette Oropesa (Norina), Andrey Zhilikovsky (Dr. Malatesta)
© Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne Opera
Vocally, Oropesa was well ahead of the pack. Her command of phrasing of the coloratura is exceptional: she can accelerate into a run and shape the dynamic as she leads up to a high note which she duly nails in the middle, with no vibrato needed to mask any possible inaccuracy. The timbre is always perfectly smooth and controlled – even when executing complex runs and complex acting moves – and there’s plenty of power to ensure that she’s being heard above the orchestra. Oropesa’s voice had something of a hard edge, but that may well have been a deliberate point of characterisation: in the one scene in which Norina genuinely softens, her love scene with Ernesto, her voice acquired a sweetness that was notably absent for much of the evening. It was a properly starry prima donna performance.
Andrey Zhilikhovsky (Dr. Malatesta), Renato Girolami (Don Pasquale) © Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne Opera
Andrey Zhilikhovsky (Dr. Malatesta), Renato Girolami (Don Pasquale)
© Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne Opera

Girolami and Zhilikhovsky’s best moment came in Pasquale and Malatesta’s Act III buffo duet “Cheti cheti immantinente”, as they plot to discover the lovers in the shrubbery: they raced through the patter at the speed of a freight train, delighting in their ability to master the tongue-twisters at speed. Girolami gave a superb acting performance, but for my taste, he erred too much on the side of unvoiced speech-like singing. Outside the patter numbers, Zhilikhovsky showed us an unctuous baritone which was good to listen to, without really competing with Oropesa. The part of Ernesto isn’t the most characterful – unlike, say, Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore, the lad is something of an irredeemable wimp – but Andrew Stenson sang his main arias pleasantly with a bright, clear tone.

Andrew Stenson (Ernesto) © Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne Opera
Andrew Stenson (Ernesto)
© Bill Cooper | Glyndebourne Opera

In the pit, Giacomo Sagripanti kept the music clean and upbeat, taking things sufficiently fast for both halves of the opera to finish well before their scheduled time. I could have asked for a bit more from the upper strings, with the overall sound a little bottom-heavy, though I couldn’t have asked for more from a lovely trumpet solo in the prelude to Act 2.

The Glyndebourne publicity talks about the score of Don Pasquale being playful and bursting with feel-good tunes. I’m not at all sure Clément shares that view: this is a production that unflinchingly eyes up the dark side of the work’s humour. But it does so with great skill, and this was a high quality performance, which was a little leaden in Act 1 but thoroughly entertaining in Acts 2 and 3 and – in its dark way – was extremely funny. Well worth the trip to East Sussex.