The week in classical: Don Pasquale; Rigoletto; Zauberland – review

Royal Opera House; Glyndebourne, East Sussex; Linbury theatre, London
Everything revolves around Bryn Terfel’s tremendous, tragicomic Don Pasquale; Verdi holds his own in a concept-laden Rigoletto. And second-guessing Schumann…

On its polished surface, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (1843) is a criss-cross of stock comic characters: rich, ageing bachelor-lech; poor, feckless nephew; glamorous minx of a widow; scheming doctor. With its lampooning and cruelty, it isn’t easy to love. How can we laugh when a young woman slaps an old man, a gesture so shocking the music stops, bright harmony and bustling orchestration shriven into abrupt retreat. Discomfort is part of the work’s gleaming weaponry. The Royal Opera’s new production, directed by Damiano Michieletto, conducted by Evelino Pidò and starring one of opera’s all-time greats, the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, recognised these tensions, at times nastily, at others disarmingly. I warmed to this piece, after long avoidance, for the first time.

Michieletto and his designer Paolo Fantin have borrowed from the language of cinema, the go-to source for so many updated opera productions: two this week alone featuring director’s chair, film studio paraphernalia and wheel-on classic cars (see also Rigoletto below). The pinging and dinging of smartphones – even the doddery Don can read an SMS – are absorbed into the aural and visual narrative. Fantin’s skilful set, with neon-outline roof and some clever business with doors, conjures a vulgar world of greed and bad taste, in which Norina – here a makeup artist to the celebs – revels. Soon, in her mock marriage to Pasquale, she’s the one in glitter and furs, steamrolling her “husband”, and his house, into a wholesale makeover.

The quartet of singers, not always secure vocally but collegiate as a team, had to work hard in an open set that offered little acoustic support. They interacted deftly around Terfel’s towering, minutely detailed Pasquale, his role debut. As he moves into a new phase of repertoire, his voice remains russety and focused, even when he’s required to manipulate a hand-held puppet and sing a breakneck patter song. His crumpled realisation that he has been duped, that the game of love is over, was lacerating in its pathos.

Markus Werba’s leather-jacketed Doctor Malatesta, robust and sly, and Olga Peretyatko in her Royal Opera debut as the gorgeous vixen Norina, appeared to have their own magnetic relationship. What were they up to? She’s supposed to be in love with earnest Ernesto (Ioan Hotea). It all enriched the generic, sour #MeToo odour. The production, first seen in Paris earlier this year, is uneven. Yet the music wins out, vibrantly and effervescently. Pidò, a bel canto authority, conducted with crispness and finesse. Donizetti gives little to the chorus (well sung here) but demands much of the orchestra, with lavishly accompanied recitatives and many conspicuous solos. Throughout, the ROH players more than delivered.

If Michieletto and co added a few extra strands to Don Pasquale, Glyndebourne tour’s new staging of Verdi’s Rigoletto constructed an entirely different carapace. The tragedy of the hated jester and his beloved daughter, based on Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, is one of opera’s simpler plots. Christiane Lutz, making her directorial debut in a work that is also a first for Glyndebourne, introduces so many complications that it becomes almost unrecognisable: we’re in 1920s Hollywood, complete with Rigoletto-as-Chaplin, two doppelgängers whose identities are never entirely clear, and a dumbshow enactment suggesting suicide, baby snatching and incest.

Matteo Lippi (Duke of Mantua) and Vuvu Mpofu (Gilda) in Glyndebourne’s first ever Rigoletto.
Matteo Lippi (Duke of Mantua) and Vuvu Mpofu (Gilda) in Glyndebourne’s first ever Rigoletto. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Luckily, under the baton of Thomas Blunt, there was sterling quality in the orchestra, chorus and cast, with the baritone Nikoloz Lagvilava magnificent and burly in the title role. Matteo Lippi’s Duke was well judged: loud, brash, showing off those top notes as if they were rippling muscles. Gilda, tenderly sung and acted by Vuvu Mpofu, is often compared to an angel. Accordingly, she wears large white wings (sometimes). Christian Tabakoff’s sets, with lighting by Benedikt Zehm and projections by Anton Trauner, looked attractive, though Rigoletto’s house, where he keeps his daughter under lock and key, had more the feel of an open prison. Good ideas were weighed down by literalness. If all can be streamlined by the time it reaches the main festival, it may work. Catch it on tour, with Donizetti’s softer comedy, L’elisir d’amore, and Handel’s dazzling Rinaldo, until December.

In a UK premiere at the Linbury theatre, two outstanding performances, by the soprano Julia Bullock and pianist Cédric Tiberghien, gave unity to a fractured evening. Zauberland, directed by Katie Mitchell, attempts to forge Robert Schumann’s 1844 song cycle Dichterliebe (poems by Heinrich Heine) to new songs by the composer Bernard Foccroulle with texts by Martin Crimp. The starting point is Schumann’s excision, from his original manuscript, of four songs, leaving the 16 we know. This is described in the programme as an “unsolved mystery” though it might well be termed “artist’s prerogative”.

Zauberland at the Linbury theatre.
Zauberland at the Linbury theatre. Photograph: Patrick Berger

Whichever, the Foccroulle-Crimp songs, engaging in themselves – delicate, imagery-rich and often sensuously melismatic – threw no light on the Schumann. A promising storyline involving a young pregnant woman, forced to leave Syria and travel to Germany, is suggested chiefly by atmosphere. Because of poor sightlines in the Linbury I missed most of the action, but Mitchell’s preference for symbolic, patterned repetition meant gaps could be filled by guesswork. Listening to Bullock and Tiberghien, attendant and redundant mysteries aside, made absorbing sense.

Star ratings (out of five)
Don Pasquale

  • Don Pasquale is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 2 November

  • Rigoletto is at Glyndebourne, East Sussex, until 2 November, then tours to Canterbury, Milton Keynes, Liverpool, Woking and Norwich until 7 December


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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