The week in classical: Don Pasquale; Holst’s Sāvitri

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Royal Opera House; Barbican, London
The charms of Donizetti’s comic opera continue to elude, while a Holst rarity shines in an elegant fusion of music and movement

Any sentient person watching Donizetti’s Don Pasquale today is caught in a double bind. Stock characters behave appallingly. The young-in-love leading couple taunt the old bachelor of the title whose failing is to have money and no one to spend it on. Psychological bullying towards him is topped off with a physical blow – so shocking that the irrepressible music stops for a moment. Maybe a few fastidious souls in that first audience at La Scala, Milan in 1843 also squirmed, but to them the story was familiar, rooted in commedia dell’arte. The bind comes in the music. Its wit and emotional range express only warmth, humour and the fragility of human nature.

Even so, the work’s charms have eluded me. Damiano Michieletto’s stylish and updated staging, new for the Royal Opera House in 2019, was a turning point. With Bryn Terfel masterly and comic in the title role, and a cast that had its own potent chemistry, I finally got it. Now the production has returned for its first revival, with a lot more fuss and busyness, and conducted by Giacomo Sagripanti. I am almost back where I was. The cast, reliant on a central quartet with minimal use of chorus, is strong but as yet lacks comedic crackle.

The Italian baritone Lucio Gallo, dignified and elegant (instead of buffoonish, too often the standard), submits to the humiliation of smearing his grey hair with rejuvenating black boot polish, or forcing himself into a corset, with grace and humour. His percussive precision with Italian consonants is in itself a masterclass. The South African soprano Pretty Yende took time to settle as the shrewish Norina, here portrayed as a go-getter makeup artist to the stars (we are in La La Land’s distant environs, in Paolo Fantin’s designs), but by Act 3 this engaging performer had let rip her full coloratura sparkle. The Spanish tenor Xabier Anduaga as Norina’s love interest, Ernesto, can soar to the highest range with ease and volume. He may have felt the need to outdo the orchestra, which sounded zestful, solos well shaped, but was unusually loud.

The night’s best singing came from the Polish baritone Andrzej Filończyk as the manipulative Dr Malatesta. His performance matched the glittering shifts in Donizetti’s score and provided much needed subtlety. Bryn Terfel returns to the cast for three performances (12, 18 & 20 May). And if you can’t resist this popular-in-most-quarters work, Mariame Clément’s production is revived at Glyndebourne this summer too.

Donizetti wrote Don Pasquale in a matter of weeks. Gustav Holst had six attempts at opera before completing the idiosyncratic Sāvitri (1916), for three solo singers, wordless female chorus and chamber ensemble. On Wednesday, Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices joined forces with Pagrav Dance Company to perform this short rarity, conducted by Mark Elder. Three kathak dancers moved in elegant arabesques around the outstanding vocal soloists, Kathryn Rudge, Anthony Gregory and Ross Ramgobin. In this parable of love, death and illusion, the absorbing aspect was not the drama but the way voices and instrumental textures interweave: the lone lament of a double bass, or the song of a mournful cor anglais. That the Britten Sinfonia has one of the world’s best reed players, Nicholas Daniel, still part of its loyal team, is a coup.

Kathryn Rudge, Ross Rambogin and members of Pagrav Dance Company perform Holst’s Sāvitri. Photograph by Antonio Olmos/the Observer
Kathryn Rudge, Ross Rambogin and members of Pagrav Dance Company perform Holst’s Sāvitri. Photograph by Antonio Olmos/the Observer Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

The Holst was the centrepiece of an ambitious three-part event. To start, the Britten Sinfonia strings, bursting with attack and verve, played Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and Grace Williams’s taut and tempestuous Sea Sketches. To end the evening, the ensemble’s leader, director and all-round inspiration, the violinist Jacqueline Shave, performed with tabla virtuoso Kuljit Bhamra and genius guitarist John Parricelli. A Covid diagnosis during rehearsals had forced Shave to yield the front seat for this, her last concert at the helm. Luckily, she was well enough to perform with her trio in a beguiling mix of jazz, Latin, tabla and folk, with the landscape of the Isle of Harris a wistful touchstone.

The question of how concerts should change, post-pandemic – heads are still being scratched – was in part addressed by the freshness of this programming and in part not. Two intervals (oh no) made for a late midweek finish, nerve-racking given the hopelessness of late-night transport, especially in the City, a desert at night. Everyone should have heard Shave in her brilliant star turn, not only the scattered crowd who stayed to the last and cheered.

Star ratings (out of five)
Don Pasquale
Holst’s Sāvitri

  • Don Pasquale is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 20 May

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