There’s no fool like an old fool

One normally associates summer opera performances with light evenings and the sound of clinking glasses and distant laughter carrying over manicured lawns. Not on this particular occasion: a steady rain had been falling for several hours and the country lanes were already drenched as opera-lovers arrived at Fingest for Diva Opera’s production of Don Pasquale. The wet conditions however did not dampen either the spirit or the performance or the enjoyment of the audience. Fingest Great Barn, with its soaring beams and rafters provides an excellent backdrop for Diva Opera; the intimate setting, together with the wonderful acoustics making a perfect match for chamber opera performances. In such surroundings the audience can concentrate on details and nuances rarely observed in larger houses.

Donizetti’s comic opera based on Giovanni Ruffini’s compact libretto, fizzes throughout with graceful and effervescent melodies yet also manages to serve up more sophisticated moments of passionate romance. The story, which in a cliché might be summed up as “there’s no fool like an old fool”, centres on the pompous but deluded character of Don Pasquale who decides to marry a young wife in order to spite his nephew Ernesto, who refuses to marry the woman Don Pasquale has chosen for him. Pasquale is subsequently outwitted by his “friend”, the manipulative Malatesta who, in collusion with Ernesto and his true sweetheart Norina, manages to trick Pasquale into a false marriage. These four central characters carry the whole opera in a continuous and expanding succession of solos, duets trios and quartets.

The singing was impressive throughout and all the characters were thoroughly convincing in their roles. The Italian diction was especially clear – a result of the proximity of the performers to the audience. From his first entrance Noel Mann captured the elderly Pasquale, a stooped shambling figure in red carpet slippers. His rich bass baritone voice, at first expressing minor disgruntlement and becoming increasingly curmudgeonly, was powerful and polished. He also displayed a skilful dexterity in the faster passages, and this was especially evident in the famous act three “patter” duet with baritone David Stephenson (Malatesta) in which the timing was spot on and the overall effect quite thrilling. Ashley Catling was a suitably lovesick Ernesto, with his plaintive, legato phrases contrasting well with the brighter sound of Norina. Although her tone was somewhat strident on the highest notes, this seemed to be in keeping with her character. The coloratura passages were crystal clear and never wavered in vitality and impact. The musical director, Bryan Evans, was a star in his own right – his exceptional playing on the piano evoking the magic of a whole orchestra and encompassing its full dynamic range.

Altogether this was a highly enjoyable evening which seemed to race by. Fingest Opera aims to raise as much money as possible for its chosen charities through these performances. This year these are Child Bereavement UK and the SMA Trust, which funds research into spinal muscular atrophy.

The Henley Standard
Maureen Idowu