A bullying, old, fat, ugly, powerful tyrant is determined to recreate his youth in the arms of a sexy young woman. 'Don Pasquale' was premiered in January 1843 but its story still speaks to our times. However on this occasion the young woman is not having it and tortures him until he is a quivering wreck. The methods of vengeance by the so-called bride, Sofronia, are not exactly vintage hashtag Me Too. This is no courtroom drama but a very clever comedy where youth and beauty prove tougher than ageing lust. Money is her principle tool, challenging the would-be Lothario's meanness by spending on the classic furs and jewels while putting her own special twist with a very modern (and expensive) makeover of his house.

No surprise to report that Bryn Terfel is perfect casting as Don Pasquale and sings and acts with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of effect. He is the lazy slob in the dressing-gown who expects the world to revolve round him and reacts with cruel petulance when his nephew, Ernesto refuses to marry the bride of Pasquale's choice and disinherits him. Instead Pasquale decides that he himself will marry. The dice is cast and he has only himself to blame.

The opera is notable for its minimal use of a chorus. From the very first scene all the music and drama focuses on a smallish cast: Don Pasquale who is scarcely off the stage, his nephew, Ernesto, sung by Romanian tenor Ioan Hotea, as the layabout romantic with a sweet voice, Doctor Malatesta who hatches the plot to brings down Pasquale sung by Austrian baritone, Markus Werba with a strength shaded by guile and his sister, the sparky heroine, Norina, then Sofronia, played by Olga Peretyatko with a wicked swish of her scarlet skirts. The music swings in a masterly fashion between the jovially comic and the tragically heartfelt.

The opera has been a huge success for a century and three quarters and this production plays to its strength of witty vivacity based on a real humanity. Don Pasquale behaves monstrously but he is more selfish than evil, no caricature villain, and Norina, in the guise of Sofronia, finds it only too easy to reduce him to a gibbering lump. 'E finita, Don Pasquale' (It is over...) he sings pathetically, after she has delivered a ringing slap to his face, underlined by a cheeky C major chord. From then on our sympathies are not so one-sided. By the time he begs to be relieved of his dragon wife and discovers that this is the woman that Ernesto longs to marry, he has lost tyrant status and become a silly, vain old man.

The Royal Opera House's production of this eternal comedy is staged jointly with Opera National de Paris and Teatro Massimi di Palermo and had its premiere earlier this year. The stylishness and imagination of the set reflect great credit to Venetian duo director, Damiano Michieletto and his designer, Paola Fantin. If at times, specifically in the woodland scene of Act III, which contains the exquisite 'Seranato' and 'Notturno', they get slightly carried away by their own inventiveness so that attention moves from the singers, one can forgive them for the overall excitement and wicked sense of enjoyment which heightens our own. They even pull off the use of large and naughty hand-held puppets.

Donizetti wrote 'Don Pasquale' only a few years before he died in 1848 and it was one of four operas he was working on at that time. He always worked fast but his claim that it only took eleven days to compose 'Don Pasquale' has proved to be an exaggeration. Nevertheless the speed of composition fits with the pared down structure of the opera. This does not mean that there is a lack of beautiful music or arias. Donizetti himself noted that at the premiere in Paris 'There was no one piece, from the overture on, that was not more or less applauded.' The same could be said of the evening that I saw it at the Royal Opera House.

Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Evelino Pido
Director: Damiano Michieletto
Set Designer: Paola Fantin