Premiered in Paris in 1843, Donizetti’s late opera Don Pasquale is a comic masterpiece of the Italian Bel Canto – an early nineteenth-century musical style with beautiful singing at its heart. A refinement of the Rossinian model, exemplified by ‘The Barber of Seville’ (1816) and ‘Count Ory’ (1828), Donizetti brought Italian comic opera to a delightful conclusion with consummate skill. Flowing with beautiful melodies and sparkling with wit, Don Pasquale is a wonderful opera from curtain-up to curtain-down.
Or at least, it should be. At the recent staging of Don Pasquale at Opera Holland Park, this artistic worth did not exactly shine through. Re-set from an aristocratic Roman villa to a chip shop in a modern-day British seaside resort, the company’s new production was to my eyes quite unacceptable. More than just cheap and tacky, the excessive stupidity averted the audience’s attention from the composer’s primary aim, which was to create not an Only Fools and Horses-style sitcom, but rather a highly classical artwork modelled on the commedia dell’arte, a theatrical tradition with its origins in the Italian Renaissance. With Don Pasquale, as with all Italian opera buffa, comedy should be taken as serious art – much unlike at Holland Park.
…a horrible shrieking voice and limited acting skills.
As its name suggests, the point of watching Bel Canto opera is to listen to great opera singers, which is not what one can expect with this kind of minor opera company. Predictably, the cast was fairly average, with only the tenor Colin Lee being of any particular note. However, a slightly better soprano would have made the experience more palatable, Majella Cullagh having a horrible shrieking voice and limited acting skills. By contrast, the City of London Sinfonia was made to sound three times its worth by the masterly performance of Australian conductor-laureate Richard Bonynge, renowned expert in Donizetti. The orchestral passages of this opera were conveyed with great sweetness and delicacy, making it a performance (just about) worth attending.
I personally would not particularly recommend any forthcoming performances at Opera Holland Park. The operas themselves, such as Le Nozze di Figaro and Rigoletto, are obviously great, but casting is quite undistinguished throughout the rest of the season. The venue, a makeshift glorified tent in an inconvenient location in Kensington, is nothing really special. If you want to try out opera, better to buy a ticket for the Royal Opera House’s autumn season in September.
Rigoletto runs until 13 August.
Image courtesy of Opera Holland Park