The cast of Don Pasquale | Joan Sutherland Theatre

Those who live in fear of opera probably have it summarily miscast as a big, black bear of a thing, lumbering around, laden with heavy emotions to match its hefty bearing. They haven’t seen Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.

This is, of course, a so-called opera buffa. No, that’s not an opera you see while nudging your way into a long, groaning table, to load your plate with king prawns and cold chicken. It’s another term for comic opera. And just as punk rock has traditions, like moshing, stage diving and gobbing, opera buffa has its trademarks; foremost among them, inspiration from the commedia dell’arte (masked, improvised theatre, dating back to Italy in the 1500s) in the form of off-the-rack characters.

Donizetti was in a good career space when he set about penning this work, having been freshly appointed Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria’s music director and composer. It premiered on January 3, 1843, in Paris, and, from that moment on, of all his operas (and there were 66), was considered his pièce de résistance. In genre terms, its only real rival is probably Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Almost without a doubt, this is the opera for people who genuinely and passionately hate opera, believe they do, or have never seen one. Interestingly, Australia figured very much in its embrace and it saw its first Antipodean exposure as early as October 12, 1854. This production is partnered by the Tokyo Art Foundation and a more luminous entertainment one won’t so readily find.

Conductor Guillaume Tourniaire — now well-known to Opera Australia audiences thanks to his contributions to Carmen, The Pearlfishers and Lucia di Lammermoor — rosy-cheeked and with a ready smile, seems like the just the right fit and, sure enough, from the moment the overture bursts into frenzied life, he affords the always considerable and never to be underestimated (and almost impossible to overestimate) Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra the licence to indulge Donizetti’s penchant for parody, of himself and other composers, by way of melodramatic overstatement, pseudo-romantic solos and other mischievous devices. Indeed, a clear sense of Donizetti’s naughtiness is one of the many delights awaiting, in this practically flawless production, exuberant and characterful from tip to toe.

Director Roger Hodgman and designer Richard Roberts have buddied-up to bring a sense of inexorable fun, consistent with the spirit in which Donizetti conceived his sixty-fourth opera. Both the mechanics and aesthetics of the set are a tour de force in themselves, rotating noiselessly from the interior of the Don’s villa, to exterior, comprising courtyard and cafe.

Conal Coad becomes the portly, old Don and, apart from his creditable, colourful bass baritone and surety in wrapping his tongue around comical staccato passages, we’re made well-aware of his acting prowess: all at once, we can find ourselves laughing at the buffoonish Pasquale, then feeling immediately guilty for being complicit in poking fun at a sensitive, vulnerable, essentially loveable septuagenarian; next thing we know, we want to give him a hug. In short, his performance is definitively charismatic.

As the wily, wordily Norina, Rachelle Durkin scintillates; she, too, is more than capable (and, at times, downright thrilling) in vocal (her coloratura is textbook), dramatic and comic departments. In a cruel and elaborate scheme devised by Pasquale’s two-faced friend and confidante, Dr Malatesta (Samuel Dundas, sounding rich and round), she manipulates and inveigles the elderly padrone into a sham marriage, taking advantage in all the worst possible ways but, in a pivotal moment, slaps him, ironically bringing herself to her senses and realising a hovering moment in the narrative in which we also feel shame. This is the point at which Donizetti deviates from comedy into poignancy, along the way indulging some moral observations.

Benjamin Rasheed, impersonating a notary, is also engaging, while Ji-Min Park, as Ernesto, Norina’s true love, is competent and convincing as an actor; transcendent as a singer.

If you liked William Wyler’s 1953 movie Roman Holiday you’ll probably love the look of OA’s DP. The prodigiously productive Donizetti knocked this up in 10 days flat. That we can still marvel at it 170 years later puts a big feather in his cap.

The details: Don Pasquale plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until August 15. Tickets on the company website.

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