Opera Australia seems to have mixed luck when it comes to staging comic operas. Often they manage to produce work that has joy, fine comedic performances and speaks to our irreverent Australian sense of humour.
But occasionally they fall short, especially in revivals where the original director hasn’t been around to drive the performances. This year’s Falstaff limped by with some fine singing and the best efforts of a cast that simply didn’t have the direction to light a spark.
In Don Pasquale, there are plenty of sparks to keep the fire burning for most of the night. Roger Hodgman has directed a generally fast-moving production set in a Technicolor 1950s Rome that matches the frantic pace set by conductor Guillaume Tourniaire in the pit. There are moments where he drives the orchestra so quickly that those onstage struggle to keep up, but there’s a vivacity in his work that draws an exciting performance from the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.
Hodgman’s production is genuinely funny and playful, but there are some moments where a little more detail in the staging would lift the comedy substantially. But the sets and costumes by Richard Roberts are perfect as a postcard and the ensemble know how to flounce about in them to hilarious effect.
For those unfamiliar with the work, Don Pasquale is a rich, elderly landowner who won’t allow his nephew to marry the girl he wants. So his nephew’s friend and the girlfriend decide to teach Pasquale a lesson by tricking him into a sham marriage that turns out to be much more than he bargained for.
There are two expertly pitched comedic performances at the centre of this production in Conal Coad’s Pasquale and Rachelle Durkin’s Norina. Both understand comedic timing and their character’s unique physicalities. Durkin is slender, slinking around the stage whereas Coad plays up Pasquale’s fumbling rotundness.
Coad delivers a strong vocal performance, grumbling and bumbling his way through Donizetti’s score. If he has one problem it’s that he’s just too likeable and it’s a little bewildering why the other characters are all ganging up on him. Durkin has remarkable agility in her upper register and her cadenzas are truly exciting.
They’re supported by Ji-Min Park as Ernesto who delivers a vocal performance bigger and better than his role and Samuel Dundas, who is effortlessly charming as Dr Malatesta and handles the patter material beautifully.
At the ending of Don Pasquale, the four main players reveal the moral of the story – that it’s foolish to get married in old age – through a quartet entitled La moral di tutto questo – “The moral of all this”. It’s not exactly profound, but like the opera itself, it’s playful, silly and quite funny.