A few years ago a young lad at school in South Wales found himself inspired to go into a career of song and theatre after a visit to the school by the Welsh National Opera company. Now that young lad, Stephen Crocker, is the Chief Executive of the Theatre Royal and Norwich Playhouse and he repaid the favour in some style with one of the most inspiring theatrical presentations of an opera that I have ever seen.

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale was first performed in 1843 and the music has stood the test of time making the work an audience favourite. Welsh National Opera have had the confidence and inspiration to take this work and bring it to new audiences in a vibrant, exciting, and hugely enjoyable new production. Donizetti’s music is just the same, and we have the same four characters as the original but now Pasquale is the master of a kebab van in late night Cardiff – Doner Pasquale! – Ernesto is his nephew who helps him work the stall and is in love with the enterprising Norina who trades in earth-friendly produce. Local legend Malatesta, of indeterminate sexuality, is a friend to Pasquale who decides to help Ernesto when Pasquale threatens to disinherit him and throw him out of work.

The languorous baritone Malatesta (Quirijn De Lang) persuades Pasquale that he needs a wife to secure his future, and promises to bring his eligible sister Sofronia up from the countryside to beguile the kebab van man into marriage. However Sofronia is actually Norina (Harriet Eyley) in a disguise that would see her pass unnoticed in ‘The Only Way Is Essex’ if not in a Cardiff nightclub. Padded out to curve in the right places she soon has Pasquale (Andrew Shore) dancing to her tune. The resourceful Malatesta instantly produces an online ‘priest’ to conduct the marriage, who bears an uncanny likeness to Bryn Terfel gobbling crisps and snacks while conducting the briefest of marriage service formalities over the ether.

As soon as the marriage is confirmed by a reluctant Ernesto (Nico Darmanin) signing as witness Norina/Sofronia turns the tables on Pasquale by turning his kebab van into a falafel bar selling kale-based smoothies and vegan treats. Pasquale soon regrets his rush into wedlock…

Some modern versions of classics can jar the senses and just do not work, but Director Daisy Evans and Conductor Stephen Higgins have turned a fusty classic into a startlingly up-to-date show with an attention to detail that makes this tale completely believable in its modern context. It touches on contemporary themes of gender rights and is spot-on for the Extinction Rebellion generation with clear positive messages that are implied by the libretto rather than being clumsily proclaimed. Don Pasquale is perhaps unusual for the classic opera canon in having a zero body count, no women repressed into submission or ignominy and a relatively upbeat ending. This suits this contemporary treatment, and creates a versatile touring work which is a perfect introduction to opera for those who may have felt daunted by it previously.

The four singing stars are just great. Andrew Shore’s Pasquale is just the right blend of bluster and belligerence that your late night kebab shop will always feature. The languid Malatesta could just have stepped off the revue bar stage and for Quirijn De Lang wherever he is becomes his personal showcase space. Harriet Eyley is both charming and puckishly naughty in her subterfuge, while Nico Darmanin takes his Donizetti arias to new levels of Ed Sheeran wannabe X-Factor contestant posing as he dreams of stardom.

The light touch of this production is enhanced by the decision to get just seven highly capable musicians to replace a full orchestra and share the stage. Leader Stephen Higgins conducts from the keyboard and the musicians sing and even act throughout the work, while also doubling as the chorus. They are all faultless but Angela Whelan on muted trumpet gives a masterclass performance while also jumping in and out of the kebab van in her hot pants and fishnet outfit. Along with the four principals they all look as though they thoroughly enjoy every minute on stage, with an infectious joy in the intimate space the Playhouse offers. This versatile show could work well in a village hall or even in the open air as easily as in a more conventional operatic venue.  It is lively and amusing from start to finish and there are lots of little moments where the cast appeal directly to the audience with a gesture like Fred Dibnah turning to camera as the latest chimney falls saying ‘did yer like that’!

If you are an opera lover there is nothing in this show to make you sniffy and resistant to change.  If you have never been to an opera, you like musical theatre and want to see what the fuss is all about this one is unmissable. No microphones needed for these four voices. Opera is above all about powerful singing and sublime music, and the WNO have created a perfect setting for these to triumph in the unlikeliest of settings, a Cardiff kebab van. It was so good that I heard a few audience members trying to work out if they could get tickets for the second Playhouse performance on Saturday evening. They’d better be quick! A brave move by the WNO and excellent programming by the Playhouse which hopefully means that the Welsh company will become a regular fixture on the Norwich theatre scene.

© Julian Swainson 2019

Listing:
Don Pasquale, Thursday 20 June and Saturday 22 June at 7.30pm. Tickets £20-£23. Discounts for Under-25s and Students.
To book, log onto www.norwichplayhouse.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 598598.

Read more here: http://norwicheye.co.uk/whats-on/don-pasquale-conductor-stephen-higgins-talks-to-norwich-eye-about-tonights-playhouse-production-by-the-wno/

WNO Don Pasquale – Nico Darmanin (Ernesto), Andrew Shore (Don Pasquale), Harriet Eyley (Norina) & Quirijn de Lang (Malatesta) in rehearsal.  Photo – Jimmy Swindells