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Oxford Playhouse

Don Pasquale
4.0Reviewer's Rating

Devotees of Donizetti should look away now… but everyone who loves comic opera should pay close attention. With this free adaptation of the maestro’s opera buffa, about an old bachelor who decides to marry a young bride to spite his disobedient nephew, Daisy Evans and Stephen Higgins find an utterly modern setting to tell their version of the (very silly) story and load it with up-to-the-minute jokes. Higgins’ musical adaptation works really well with a seven-piece street band. And in terms of the story, Evan’s reworked libretto works brilliantly on its own terms – those of the sitcom-cum-farce of modern TV loaded with great one-liners. And praise is also due to Welsh National Opera for teaming Evans and Higgins with an outstanding team of singer/actors who are clearly having the time of their lives performing the larger-than-life characters who hang around the lively, if hygienically challenged, fast food business of our hero.

The setting is Don Pasquale’s kebab van in Cardiff. The Don wants to leave his business to his nephew Ernesto but, fed up with the young man’s dreams of becoming a pop star and his lack of devotion to kebabery, he decides to sack Ernesto and look for a young bride to provide him with a new heir. He unwisely asks a disreputable customer, Malatesta, to help him find the right girl. This conman happens to be a good friend of Ernesto’s and cooks up a scheme to thwart the old man with the help of Ernesto’s eco-warrior vegan girlfriend, Norina. By the end “the millennials have won”.

The wonderful Andrew Shore is the gullible Don. He has now become the first choice basso buffo for comic roles in the UK. Whether it’s Rossini or Gilbert and Sullivan he has the knack of finding a comic persona that lights up the humour in the role, and his rich bass voice just seems to get better and better. His Don is not the crumbling buffoon that the role sometimes seems to attract – he runs a successful business, he works out, but he has a weakness that leads to his downfall.  Quirijn de Lang’s Malatesta is an extraordinary concoction – part Rocky Horror Show, part Pirates of the Caribbean – and at times his sinuous slinking around the stage seems close to getting out of control but his sly grin and his excellent baritone voice just about keep the show on the road despite the skin–tight leather trousers. As Ernesto, Nico Darmanin hams up the wannabe pop-star as he delivers his ‘Povero Ernesto’ aria on a spot-lit table top but his razor-sharp tenor was more than up to the demands of Donizetti’s demanding music. And as juice bar queen Norina, Harriet Eyley is a real find – she has just the voice for Donizetti’s bel canto but she can do broad comedy too. I had to look away as she and Ernesto (disguised in a daffodil hat and Welsh flag) shag away by the recycling bins in a successful attempt to make Pasquale decide on divorce. There is a fifth cast member – but who he is and how he appears is too good a joke to spoil.

The set is a very realistic kebab van and few tables and chairs – and it is no problem to change it for the final act from a van offering doner kebabs to one providing kale and ginger smoothies. The band sits on one side of the stage and provides more than the music – a wonderful muted trumpet solo from Angela Whelan and a collective effort at choral singing were highlights. Though the basic idea bears the hallmark of the inventive directorial talents of Daisy Evans, this feels like a collective effort from a team of performers working brilliantly together. Any great opera ought to be strong enough to stimulate endless re-invention – otherwise we will need more museums and fewer opera houses. This is great fun – go and see it.    

  • Opera
  • By Gaetano Donizetti, adapted by Stephen Higgins
  • Original Italian libretto by Giovanni Ruffini, adapted by Daisy Evans
  • Cast includes: Andrew Shore, Nico Darmanin, Harriet Eyley, Quirijn de Lang
  • Oxford Playhouse
  • Touring until 13th July 2019

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Owen Davies was brought up in London but has Welsh roots. He was raised on chapel hymns, Handel oratorios and Mozart arias. He began going to the theatre in the 1960s and, as a teenager, used to stand at the back of the Old Vic stalls to watch Olivier's National Theatre productions. He also saw many RSC productions at the Aldwych in the 1960s. At this time he also began to see operas at Covent Garden and developed a love for Mozart, Verdi and Richard Strauss. After a career as a social worker and a trade union officer, Owen has retired from paid employment but is a student at Rose Bruford College studying for a BA in Opera Studies.

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