Donizetti’s Comic Opera ‘Don Pasquale’ Opens In Donegal

by Sean Hillen

Instead of the traditional musical overture, a delightful opening ten minutes of highly amusing mime was the first clue the Irish National Opera’s adaptation of Donizetti’s ‘Don Pasquale’ Saturday evening could be something special – and indeed it was.

This premiere, performed at An Grianan theatre in Letterkenny, Donegal where the company had been rehearsing all week for the launch of its national tour, was exceptional in all respects.

Photo by Emilija Jefrenova.

Once, even if you were only an average actor but had a wonderful voice, you could be acclaimed in the world of opera. Now the demands of theatre are such that you require to be acutely skilled in both, with the added gift of impeccable timing. The cast of ten in ‘Don Pasquale,’ the company’s 48th production in its five year life, immensely well directed by Orpha Phelan, showed they each possess those talents in spades.

Let’s first, however, start with stage and set, the largest, I’m informed, the group will perform on during the whole tour. Designer, Nicky Shaw, and lighting director, Matt Haskins, have fashioned a visual feast for the eyes. Simple yet impressive, all in white, with a large overhead sign, ‘Dr. Malatesta – Plastic Surgeon To The Stars,’ we are presented with a realistic depiction of a doctor’s office, complete with hanging skeleton, wheelchair, metal table with medical instruments on it, a privacy curtain, reclining hospital bed, grey filing cabinet framed, portraits of ears, eyes lips and nose along the walls and stacked brown cardboard boxes on the floor labeled Viagra, Botox and silicone implants. In the second act, the set is transformed into Don Pasquale’s comfy sitting room with armchairs, house plants and cardboard boxes now labelled leggings, coats, jumpers and dresses. 

Now to that delightful opening mime sequence which sets the evening’s witty, high-spirited mood deftly. Three patients arrive side-stage, bashful, uneasy, insecure, somewhat embarrassed, they sit on a row of chairs beside the doctor’s reception desk, pick up magazines and read quietly. A few minutes later, they emerge from surgery rooms behind, transformed, energised with confidence and beaming wide smiles, holding aloft for the audience’s delight, the covers of the magazines they were reading – featuring celebrity faces such as those of Bono and Colin Farrell. And my goodness, they now do look somewhat like them.

From then on, the comic opera’s plot develops seamlessly, with – as Phelan puts it – “lots of intrigue, deception and shenanigans” and who also uses the cosmetic surgery setting to reflect the core elements of the plot which she describes as, “pretence and artifice” that “pokes fun at those with more money than sense.” 

Cantankerous Don Pasquale, played wonderfully by English bass, Graeme Danby, is unhappy with his nephew Ernesto, a role featuring the talented Congo-born French tenor Patrick Kabongo. Ernesto is set to inherit his uncle’s fortune but Don considers his nephew has made a poor choice of fiancé so he threatens instead to get married himself and keep his fortune, leaving him penniless. To help Ernesto and his fiancé, one of his nurses, Dr. Malatesta played by Newry-born baritone Ben McAteer, concocts a devious plan that involves tricking Don into a pretend marriage with his fictional sister, Sofronia, supposedly a former nun who has just left the convent – and who is none other than the beautiful Norina, Ernesto’s fiancé, in disguise in dark wig and black clothing. 

Photo by Pat Redmond.

Irish soprano, Kelli-Ann Masterson is marvellous in the role of Norina. By turns, upbeat and fun, coquettish, sultry and mischievous to the point of trying on breast implants for size and tossing bras and knickers around the stage, she epitomises both the confident, seductive fiancé and the timid nun in drab flat shoes and black lace veil. Later in the show, she also plays the role of Don’s spendthrift ‘pretend wife’ wonderfully well, piles of boxes containing expensive brandname clothing being testimony to exploits that launch the grumpy Don into raptures of rage and bewilderment, and finally, after being told of the trick, consenting to her marriage with Ernesto.

As for vocal performances, Masterson’s coloratura and trills are precise, supporting character and drama rather than for simple display. Summoned by Ernesto’s serenade, her tender romantic duet with Kabongo, ‘Tornami a dir che m’ami,’ is a vocal highlight of the show, her singing prowess a perfect complement to his warm, liquid voice and easy high notes.

Photo by Pat Redmond.

Danby displays the kudos he has earned in the starring role, creating an endearing Pasquale, the childlike warmth beneath the man’s grouchiness, his innocent delight at the thought of marriage at his advanced age and his mix of anger, confusion and pathos when his ‘marriage’ falls apart. His voice like that of McAteer who plays the arch conspirator with cunning and gusto, is fluid and expressive, the big patter duet between them a delight to behold. 

Mention must also be made of the supporting quintet of Jessica Hackett (soprano), Leanne Fitzgerald, mezzo-soprano who also plays a notary, tenors Ben Escorcio and William Pearson and bass, Kevin Neville, members of the Irish National Opera Chorus, whose combined contributions and well-choreographed comedic scenes, one involving a set of potted plants, are key to the show’s success. A word of praise also for the 12-member Irish National Opera Orchestra directed by the self-assured Teresa Riveiro Bohm. Unobtrusive yet immensely supportive, the musicians – the only pit orchestra, I’m told, in the entire tour – carried the melodies superbly throughout.

There are several morals to the Donizetti’s tale. Among them, that husbands should be seen but not heard, that a man marrying in old age is asking for trouble and that love belongs to the young… at heart.

While the opera is sung in Italian, clear English surtitles projected either side of the stage enhance the audience’s enjoyment. Overall, I agree with Fergus Sheil, the company’s artistic director, when he says the show has, “a lightness and sense of fun…and the score fizzles with vocal acrobatics.” 

Brendan Twomey. Photo by Columbia Hillen

Last word on the show’s quality is provided by Brendan Twomey, long-time solicitor in the nearby town of Falcarragh and an opera aficionado who faithfully attends productions at the famed Wexford Festival Opera every year. “This was a sparkling performance,” he said. “Really compelling listening and viewing, easily on a par with the best productions I’ve seen over the years. The duets, the quintets, they were charming and the acting and timing was superb.”

Next stop for the Irish National Opera and its 15-person crew is Navan, but backstage talk is that Donegal should have the pleasure of the group’s return for two different performances next year.

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