Just after Norina has slapped Don Pasquale in the final act of Donizetti’s dramma buffo, the fun suddenly stops and the music takes on a serious hue, as the two characters express deeper, more sensitive thoughts than the comedy has hitherto allowed. In Glyndebourne’s production, first seen on last autumn’s tour and now enlarged for the summer festival, that contrast is underlined by a change of lighting and a brief suspension of the action. At a single stroke we begin to understand why Don Pasquale is regarded as a pinnacle of the Italian comic opera tradition: it has to do with the humanising of characters who might otherwise have come across as farcical stereotypes, but now emerge as three-dimensional archetypes, capable of tenderness as well as spite.
The sensitivity with which this shift is handled is a touchstone for the entire performance, the simplicity and charm of which make it a Glyndebourne classic – a genre in extremely short supply in recent seasons. Indeed, it almost defies belief that Don Pasquale has not been seen on the Sussex Downs since 1938, when Audrey Mildmay, wife of John Christie, Glyndebourne’s founder, sang Norina. The opera seems tailor-made for this venue, so it is fitting that a new Lady Glyndebourne – aka Danielle de Niese, wife of Gus Christie, John’s grandson and the current chairman – should inherit the role. Sparkly and sexy but also sincere, de Niese’s Norina duly triumphs, even if her impact relies more on stage presence than vocal allure.
She meets her match in a true maestro della commedia – Alessandro Corbelli, whose Pasquale, ridiculous but moving, captures the essence of the part: the sneering irony he invests in the words “cara sposita” (dear wife) is alone worth the ticket. Nikolay Borchev’s Malatesta is not quite sly enough, and Enea Scala’s Ernesto sings too forcefully to capture the sweetness of Donizetti’s tenor writing.
While showcasing the humour within a smart traditional framework, Mariame Clément’s staging takes nothing at face value. The characters engage intelligently with each other, Julia Hansen’s turntable set offers piquant perspectives and Enrique Mazzola’s taut conducting casts a beneficent spell over the entire evening.