Friday 13 February 2009

Two Don Pasquales

I used to own an audio version of Donizetti's opera Don Pasquale. I can't remember if it was a CD or an LP, it was that long ago. I have no recollection of the production, singers, orchestra or whatever. But I just loved the music. Some great tunes that the story did not matter very much. In this case a rather common tale of how a clever and pretty young woman outwits a dirty old man and marries the handsome man of her dreams. The opera does not seem to get performed much, so it was with great surprise and pleasure that I have been able to see two versions of the opera in the space of a month. The first was a DVD recording from the 2007 production in Geneva, a Christmas present from Emma and the other was a recording from the 2006 Ravenna Festival shown on TV, on the SkyArts channel. Both versions are very good with fine acting and, to my untutored ear, very good singing. The main difference is in the staging, with the Geneva production set in what looks like 1950's Paris while there is a more traditional period setting from Ravenna.

One of the strengths of the Geneva version is the sets and costumes, which are very colourful and go through various changes. We start not in Don Pasquale's house, but among the pavement tables of the spacious Café des Artistes. The predominant colours are greys and blacks, though the set is bright and light. This set remains for scene two in which Norina appears as a painter at her easel. For act two the set has become Don Pasquale's salon, which is decorated and furnished in a very tasteful neoclassical style which emphasizes the wealth and breeding of Pasquale. The colours are again restrained, mainly greys. By the third act this salon looks like a garish ultra modern homage to Joan Miró, full of paintings and sculptures in bright reds, yellows, blues, blacks and whites. The final scene is in the courtyard garden, replete with garish Miró style statue. The set changes work very well and bring a new dimension to the tale. The one slight weakness of the production is that neither Pasquale nor Norina fully look the part. Simone Alaimo plays Don Pasquale as a well dressed and highly cultured and quite handsome gentleman, who in no way looks remotely like he is 70 years old. Partizia Ciofi is an attractive enough Norina, but it is a bit of a stretch to see her as a young widow. However the vitality of the performances and the imaginative sets make this a very enjoyable production. There is even a twist in the tail to end the opera. Instead of a somewhat rueful and dejected Pasquale, this production has the Don sneaking off with one of his (middle aged) maids and the final spotlight is not on Norina and Ernesto but on Pasquale as he kisses his new love.

The Ravenna version benefits from a believable cast. Claudio Desderi as Don Pasquale really looks like a rather tired 70 year old, with his white hair, glasses and slightly corpulent waistline. While Laura Giardino is a most attractive and young looking Norina. The other two main characters, Francisco Gatell as Ernesto and Mario Cassi as Dr Malatesta are also good in their roles. The sets and costumes have a non specific early nineteenth century look to them. Most of the action takes place in or in front of Don Pasquale's main room. The staging is quite unusual in that there are no walls to the room. The doors and some paintings are held in place as hangings and the gaps appear as black walls but it is just very dark lighting or the lack of of. The little amount of furniture is pretty non-descript and overall the pervading mood is dark and sombre. Only the light coloured dresses of Norina brighten the stage up a bit. This mood of darkness suits the production which highlights the harshness in the way Pasquale is treated as much as the overall comedy of the piece. Only in the finale is there some brightness as a blue sky appears as the backdrop. A fitting image for Pasquale's “enlightenment”. In this production the focus is firmly on the happy young couple, while Pasquale is left to reflect on the wisdom of the moral of the tale - that an old man who marries is looking for trouble.

Two lovely productions and I am already looking forward to watching both versions again.

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