Claudia Boyle in Donizetti's 'Pasqual€' presented by Opera Theatre Company. Photos: Kip Carroll

Claudia Boyle in Donizetti's 'Pasqual€' presented by Opera Theatre Company. Photos: Kip Carroll

Martin Higgins in Donizetti's 'Pasqual€' presented by OTC. Photos: Kip Carroll

Martin Higgins in Donizetti's 'Pasqual€' presented by OTC. Photos: Kip Carroll

Opera Theatre Company enters its 25th year with a topical production of a modernised Don Pasqual€, Donizetti’s swan-song on the opera buffa from 1843, a genre soon after replaced by the operetta in the styles of Offenbach, Johann Strauss or Gilbert & Sullivan. The earliest masterpiece of opera buffa, Pergolesi’s La serva padrona from 1733, presents us with a rich old man falling in love with and subsequently under the thumb of a poor, young, beautiful girl; more than a century later this is also Donizetti’s basic plot.

Photo: Kip CarrollMany opera buffa roles are stock characters derived from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte tradition (the rich old buffoon, the scheming young girl, the pompous doctor) in which neither their thoughts nor their acting are expected to be very subtle. Mozart was the first composer to prove that this can be different in opera, while Donizetti sails closer to the original concept. OTC’s Don Pasquale is no retired merchant but an active banker who cannot stop thinking of money, even in his sleep. His doctor, Malatesta (here the Don’s psychiatrist) convinces him to marry his 'sister'. She is in fact Norina, a woman in love with Ernesto, Pasquale’s nephew and (until now) heir. Malatesta’s plan is ultimately meant to ensure Pasquale’s agreement to Ernesto’s marriage to Norina, which is finally secured after extensive plotting, counterplotting and misunderstandings. The singers are clearly having fun acting out all their jokes, while Annilese Miskimmon’s production mixes original, creative ideas (the garden represented by a € sign made of autumn leaves; the opening “ballet of the bank notes”) with occasionally rather blunt symbolism (a literal fat cat sitting on Pasquale’s treasure, or the continuously featuring bank notes either raining from the sky or being thrown at each other by the characters on stage). The attempt to jump onto the bandwagon of bank bashing only works superficially here: Pasquale, while being extremely good at what he does for a living, errs in believing that money can buy him love (or at least obedience); our bankers turned out to be rather less good professionally - even before emotions came into play.

Claudia Boyle. Photo: Kip CarrollThe star of this production is Claudia Boyle who has developed into an impressive and versatile singer. She exudes confidence at every turn and negotiates her coloraturas with aplomb, being equally convincing as naïve nun straight out of the convent and as femme fatale ready to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. It is not quite clear whether this beautiful young widow’s main motivation is love for Ernesto or a wish to better her position, particularly since Ernesto here appears as a rather naïve, accountant-like character – very much unlike the dashing tenor one might traditionally expect. Fredrik Akselberg excels at his passionate expressions of love to Norina yet also impresses in his subordinate behaviour towards his uncle. Martin Higgins is a most convincing banker who cannot imagine anyone getting the better of him until it is too late, while Andrew Ashwin beautifully portrays Malatesta as a Figaro-like schemer who always pretends to be in charge even if a situation spins out of control. OTC’s Young Associate Artist Nathan Morrison plays a deliciously insecure fake notary, a role requiring little singing but – particularly in this production – a significant acting contribution. Roy Laughlin’s nine-piece chamber ensemble provided an energetic and reliable background for the singers, staying fresh and sharp until the end (a challenge particularly for the string players). Laughlin kept the proceedings on a brisk track.

At some stage it looked as if OTC would cease to exist by the end of 2010. While it now plays on for another season, its future is as unclear as that of the projected National Irish Opera Company. So it was with good reason that Virginia Kerr invited members of the audience in her address marking OTC’s anniversary to quiz canvassers closely about their respective parties’ policies on arts and culture. Here's hoping that opera will still be alive in Ireland (outside of Wexford) in the next season, even without OTC cashing the cheque of €90 million that Don Pasquale donated to the company at the very end.

Wolfgang Marx lectures in music at University College Dublin.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Pasquale by Gaëtano Donizetti

18 February - 12 March, 2011 (on tour)

Produced by Opera Theatre Company
In Samuel Beckett Theatre

Conducted by Roy Laughlin

Directed by Annilese Miskimmon

Set and Lighting Design: Aedín Cosgrove

Costume Design: Ann Conmy

With: Martin Higgins, Andrew Ashwin, Claudia Boyle, Fredrik Akselberg and (Young Associate Artist) Nathan Morrison.