Thursday 9 May 2013

Popup Opera - Don Pasquale

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Popup Opera's speciality is touring small scale opera productions to unusual venues, tailoring the production to the venue. I caught their new production of Donizetti's comic opera Don Pasquale in the relatively intimate confines of the upstairs room at the Sun Tavern in Covent Garden. Directed by Darren Royston with a cast that included Raul Baglietto as Don Pasquale, Ricardo Panela as Doctor Malatesta, Ciff Zammit Stevens as Ernesto and Clementine Lovell as Norina, the lively production filled the relatively small acting space, accompanied by James Henshaw on piano. Sung in Italian, with English subtitles, the results were vividly communicative.

Popup Opera was founded by soprano Clementine Lovell in 2011 and they have developed a raison d'etre where they perform in the original language, taking traditional productions to non-traditional locations including pubs, boats, a Victorian poor-house, a tunnel under the Thames and caves.

Don Pasquale opened with Darren Royston's ubiquitous servant figure lounging in Don Pasquale's house. During the overture we were introduced to the cast, in slightly mad-cap fashion but one which ensured that we knew who was whom. Royston's production made imaginative use of props such as figurines, photographs and books, not to mention a water pistol, to ensure that we knew who these people were and what they were doing. There were English summaries, projected silent-move style on a screen at the side but frankly, you hardly needed them such was the communicativeness of the production.

Of course, Donizetti's opera does not sing itself, and despite being a comic piece needs singers with secure and confident vocal techniques. So it helped that Royston had a cast who could not only perform in such an uninhibited fashion with the audience so close, but who had the technical armoury to bringing off a robustly confident musical performance. There was a lot of laughter in the production, but Royston's inspiration was the commedia dell'arte, so we were not laughing at the characters; underneath all the antics Royston and his cast took the characters seriously.

Baritone Raul Baglietto made a strong and sympathetic Don Pasquale. He has a dark, nicely-grainy bass baritone voice with a good ability to articulate Donizetti's passagework cleanly. He was clearly far younger than his character, but thankfully we did not have any comic acting of old age. He created sympathy for the character so that when Norina (Clementine Lovell) slapped him, it was a real shock. Rather impressively Baglietto and Ricardo Panela as Doctor Malatesta sang the famous patter duet whilst pretending to box, a tour-de-force which came off brilliantly. Both were technically confident and conveyed the sheer joy of the brilliant music. Panela made a very fine, rather knowing Doctor Malatesta who seemed rather too fond of Norina himself. He was clearly having fun and conveyed this enjoyment in his vivid performance.

Cliff Zammit Stevens was a larger than life Ernesto, wearing blazer and shorts. He has quite a robust lyric tenor voice which negotiated the pit-falls of Donizetti's tenor line with aplomb, and he showed himself capable of finesse in the quieter passages. He also has great charm. Clementine Lovell made an attractive Norina. Initially seen in tennis gear, before switching to demure county for Sofronia before her final incarnation as a dominatrix! Lovell has a nicely useful lyric soprano, and made an attractive, rather pert Norina. Some of the details of the passagework were a bit smudged, but she carried everything off with great verve and charm.

The production was full of mad-cap ideas which worked, because they seemed to say something about the characters and the action rather than being grafted on as yet another crazy stunt. Fruit featured rather a lot, including the proffering of a real apple, much artificial fruit was thrown about, at one happy moment we had soap bubbles being blown (a delightful effect). Royston and his cast had learned from commedia dell'arte the art of keeping moving, whilst remaining expressive and characterful.

In such a small space the singing was quite powerful and it says a lot for the technical expertise of all concerned, that this came off well as there was so much to enjoy vocally. Musical director James Henshaw worked hard at the piano, discreetly providing reliable and imaginative support.

This was a vivid, quite broad brush, performance, but with plenty of fine Donizettian singing. Though I saw it in an audience of generally seasoned opera goers, I felt that it would certainly appeal to those coming to opera for the first time. Do try and catch them if they Popup near you. They are currently touring Don Pasquale and will be presenting a new double bill of Donizetti's Rita and Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona in June. Further information from the Popup Opera website.

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