Conal Coad and Rachelle Durkin prove there’s no fool like an old fool in this operatic Roman Holiday homage.
Paris 1842, and Gaetano Donizetti at the height of his fame was casting around for a new opera for the Théâtre-Italien. As ever, seemingly pushed for time, he enlisted as co-conspirator Giovanni Ruffini who reworked Ser Marc’Antonio, an oldie but goodie from 1810 into a spruced up neat little four-hander. “I start rehearsing a new opera buffa that cost me more than ten days labour”, commented the ever-speedy composer, adding, somewhat shamefacedly: “It’s the old Marc’Antonio (don’t tell)”.
Don Pasquale, as the new opera was called, was the 43-year-old Donizetti’s sixty-fourth stage work no less and yet his imagination was undimmed and from the overture onwards the score abounds in memorable tunes of the popular sort that had made the composer’s name synonymous with the 19th-century musical equivalent of ‘the common touch’.
Roger Hodgman’s updated new production for Opera Australia is presented as an affectionate homage to William Wyler’s 1953 film Roman Holiday. Otherwise it is a conventional enough affair with plenty of gentle humour that should appeal to many and offend none. Musically, it’s a success, as Guillaume Tourniaire, a visibly dynamic figure in the pit, shapes Donizetti’s felicitous score with great aplomb.
Apart from a couple of exterior street scenes, which enable Malatesta to arrive on a Vespa and include a charming period-style café, Richard Roberts’s functional design has us inside Pasquale’s slightly cardboard villa. Anyone who’s ever been to Rome might reckon that the whole set could have benefitted from some roughing up and general aging. A few more ideas wouldn’t have gone amiss either. As it is, it has an old-fashioned whiff of low budget amateur dramatics about it. The costumes, however, are spot on.
The performances are rather more inspired. Opera Australia veteran Conal Coad makes a highly sympathetic case for poor old Pasquale. This mild-mannered traditional gent is touchingly concerned that he will prove too elderly to go a-wooing and conveys with tasteful subtlety a comical fear that his potency might be in doubt. His fluttering hands, forever trying to tame his ludicrous toupée – and his hangdog weariness in the second half – capture the full pathos of the wannabe roué. Vocally, too, he is on the money, displaying a firm buffo bass that belies the quivering jowls.
As Norina, Pasquale’s amour and subsequent adversary, Rachelle Durkin is winsome enough for two and, with the exception of Coad, she acts everyone off the stage. Vocally she’s in her element, even and warm of tone, and displaying an effortless top. Her duet with her elderly hen-pecked spouse is the comedic highlight of the evening, each sparking off the other. The soul-searching moment for both after she has impetuously struck him is genuinely moving.
Ji-Min Park is a lovable, charming Ernesto, a sweet-toned tenore di grazia with a clean and easy delivery across the full range. He makes an appealing fist of Pasquale’s slightly wet nephew, although his acting is fairly large scale and he could benefit by a little less mugging. His ravishingly lyrical duet with Durkin however is the evening’s musical highlight.
Samuel Dundas makes a suave Dr Malatesta, rather younger and more handsome than is often the case, although he lacks a crucial degree of the Mephistophelian and isn’t in the same acting league as Coad or Durkin. The voice is fine, but occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra.
All in all, then, an engaging, if undemanding, entertainment with a pair of A-grade performances that should find many friends. Worth a visit.
Don Pasquale runs at the Sydney Opera House until August 15