In a sense, the plot of Don Pasquale is timeless: it concerns an old man who comes between young lovers and meets his comeuppance. It’s certainly been very popular with opera composers: the story is essentially identical to Richard Strauss’ Die schweigsame Frau, while Donizetti’s eponymous hero is kin to Mozart’s Count Almaviva (in Figaro), Rossini’s Bartolo (in Barbiere), Verdi’s Falstaff, and Strauss’ Baron Ochs (in Rosenkavalier). The librettist, Giovanni Ruffini, did not provide Donizetti with a psychologically nuanced character such as Falstaff, or a multi-layered plot as in Figaro. Instead, Don Pasquale is a farce, plain and simple. And it is none the worse for that, especially when brought off with the verve and brio of the current Opera Australia production.

Rachelle Durkin as Norina & Conal Coad as Don Pasquale © Branco Gaica
Rachelle Durkin as Norina & Conal Coad as Don Pasquale
© Branco Gaica

The curtain rose a few bars into the overture to reveal a screen decorated with a Mad Men-era advertisement for the opera. Towards the end of the overture, this was lifted and we were shown a 1950s street scene in Rome, complete with police in Napoleon hats, a woman beating a carpet out of a window, a priest wearing the traditional cappello romano, and Malatesta arriving at a house on a Vespa. In the twinkling of an eye, this set (designed by Richard Roberts) had twirled on its axes and been transformed into the interior of Pasquale’s house for Act I. These virtuosic transformations were repeated at various points, with the final scene taking place in a third setting (a courtyard garden).

Although a fussy, ridiculous, would-be tyrant, Pasquale never evokes dislike, and by the end we are as much in sympathy with the old buffer as we are amused by his predicament. Conal Coad was simply outstanding in the title role; he inhabited the character, combining a sonorous voice, accurate pitching and clear diction with hilarious facial expressions and gestures. His opening waltz-like aria was a delight and made me wonder why Coad has never sung Ochs for Opera Australia.

Pasquale’s sometime wife, Norina, was played by Rachelle Durkin. Again, this was a high-calibre performance, offering the viewer moments of laugh-out-loud comedy (especially in the duet with Malatesta) and the listener the thrill of hearing some fine virtuosic singing. The runs were secure and agile, and apparently effortless. Only in the very highest notes was the tone perhaps a touch thin, but this did not detract in the least from our pleasure.

Ji-Min Park’s Ernesto was vocally marvellous: his tone was warm and cultivated, with plenty of volume when needed. In the duet with Norina in Act III, I actually felt that he overpowered her a little. The off-stage and then on-stage serenade was a real highlight. Maybe his acting was a little less convincing than the other protagonists, but he does have the “straightest” role.

Dr Malatesta is the architect of the whole plot (a little like Mozart’s Don Alfonso in Così), and as performed by Samuel Dundas, he was a smooth operator. Dundas has a nice, refined voice, not particularly loud, but he is capable of good feats of patter singing. The only other minor role is the fake notary, where Benjamin Rasheed had some amusing by-play. The chorus had relatively little to do, but the “Zitti” number was properly charming.

The direction of Roger Hodgman was highly effective, with some delightful business, such as the maid coming to comfort the recently evicted Ernesto during his Act II aria, bringing his forgotten teddy bear with her. In general, the acting was as good as the singing: during the arias and ensembles, the cast moved around fluently and interacted well. This made the Act II quartet, where the principals all remained rooted in a line, all the more effective by contrast. This is a typical “reaction” number when we hear what the characters are thinking, a brief respite from the hectic goings-on, before we are plunged back into the mad-cap action.

Even before he had conducted a note, Guillaume Tourniaire’s dress and podium technique attracted my notice. While white tie has increasingly become an option rather than de rigeur for conductors, Tourniaire’s collarless long-sleeved T-shirt marked a new level of informality. More interestingly, this southpaw director had a rather unorthodox baton hold, but it was hard to quarrel with the results: the orchestra sounded more crisp and unified than they have recently. A special word of commendation is due to the on-stage trumpeter in Act II who provided an elegantly shaped obbligato during Ernesto’s lament (making him a busker who was eventually moved on by the police was an inspired touch).