Thursday, 15 November 2018

Young singing stars take chance to shine on a summer’s evening

WITH instructions to park in The Paddock and walk across to The Barn, I drove up

WITH instructions to park in The Paddock and walk across to The Barn, I drove up through the woods and narrowing lanes to Fawley with anticipation.

Emerging to glorious views of the Chiltern hills and a buzz of gathering opera supporters, I was early enough to hear the final flourishes of the rehearsal.

We were here to see a production of Donizetti’s much loved comic opera Don Pasquale — this summer’s collaboration between Opera Holloway and Opera Prelude. These two excellent charities work with young artists at the start of their singing careers.

This year a cast of four singers was directed by Fiona Williams, conducted by Lewis Gaston, and ably supported by pianist Laurie O’Brien and a student string quartet (Royal Academy of Music and Guildhall School of Music & Drama) playing from the full orchestral score.

Written in 1843, Don Pasquale is Donizetti’s 64th opera and one of his later works. It marks a surprising return to the Commedia dell’Arte form — all the more so because in the same year it was completed Wagner was premiering his The Flying Dutchman, the start of a new direction for opera.



However it is Donizetti’s treatment of his characters which makes this opera so interesting. They are more complex and have greater emotional depth than the typical farce.

So what on the surface seems the normal trite plot actually deals with the emotions of friendship, true love, foolishness and greed.

This was fast-paced comedy with well-cast and engaging characters, and colourful musical writing from the moment the curtain rose.

Squalid and ageing bachelor Don Pasquale schemes to disinherit his feckless nephew Ernesto, but is outwitted by Norina, Ernesto’s true love, and their friend, the intelligent and persuasive doctor Malatesta.

Costume and make-up had done a good job of transforming Christopher Holman into the 70-year-old Don Pasquale with grey hair, wrinkles and substantially-cushioned pot belly. His lugubrious movements and wonderful deep bass voice made for a convincing performance.

There are just two arias. Norina, played by soprano Callie Swarbrick, sings of her love for Ernesto as she paints her toenails. This was a vivacious performance — the coloratura with its virtuosic leaps and runs handled lightly through the fast passages, and the top notes were spot on.

A little later the distraught Ernesto, played by tenor Tom Morss, learning of Norina’s impending marriage to his uncle, despairs of his lost love. He coped well with the high register and though accurate could with time, I feel, bring more passion to the role and to this aria. However, he pulled off the later comic scenes with aplomb.

Most of the action happens in fast-paced duets and there was some excellent ensemble singing. Of particular note was the comical duet of Malatesta and Norina as they scheme to trap Don Pasquale. This is where we saw the emotional depth of the characters and the acting was very good indeed.

Baritone Alex Otterburn gave a commanding performance as Malatesta with excellent Italian diction and good communication with the audience.

Swarbrick showed her versatility here, changing character with every turn of the head as she took on the challenge of enticing the old man to marry her.

The marriage is hastily arranged and immediately the new bride changes from demure young girl to spiteful married woman “spending half the annual budget on hats and ribbons!”

Music director Lewis Gaston conducted sensitively and with good command of the changing tempi, giving clear direction to the musicians and the singers.

The singers, who would normally be embedded in the sound of an orchestra, would have found the sight lines tricky — the string quartet and pianist being positioned at one end of the long narrow space.

But this was managed well and they maintained good contact with the audience.

The acting was especially good, with some convincing performances. This, plus the high standard of singing, made for an overall professional performance.

Bravo to the work of Opera Holloway and Opera Prelude.

Review: Mandy Beard



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