A thoroughly modern opera; ARTS & CULTURE Welsh National Opera's new production of Donizetti's comic opera Don Pasquale is bang up to date, and designed to reach audiences that larger, more traditional operas do not, writes Jenny White.
The comedy of an old bachelor's romantic delusions and the young lovers who outwit him takes to the road this month, touring to venues in Wales and England from today to July 13.
Director Daisy Evans, musical director Stephen Higgins and designer Loren Elstein have ripped up the rule book and changed the design, narrative and libretto to bring Donizetti's opera bang up to date for a completely new audience, as well as for those who already know and love the work.
"Stephen Higgins and I have worked together before and we've always liked changing things up - not just setting things in a new aesthetic, but also changing what it sounds like to make it more contemporary," says Evans. "These original comic operas, like Don Pasquale and The Barber of Seville, can be quite long and sometimes not as funny as they could be.
"Also, there were elements that just felt really wrong to me; there's woman shaming, fat shaming, being unpleasant to old people - so to do it exactly the same just with a different look wasn't enough for me.
"But Stevie, Loren and I are not destroying what the opera is or what Donizetti created - we just want to give it a new skin and change how the audience experiences it."
In this new version of the opera, Don Pasquale (played by Andrew Shore) has been living in Cardiff since the 1970s, and his kebab van has become his little empire. Pasquale doesn't think much of his nephew, Ernesto (Nico Darmanin), and doesn't want to hand his kebab van over to him when he dies, so he decides to get married and produce heirs of his own.
A member of a street band, Malatesta (Quirijn De Lang) doesn't like the way Pasquale is behaving and comes up with an idea to trick him. He gets Ernesto's girlfriend Norina (Harriet Eyley), a juice bar-owning vegan, to pose as his sister and pretend to marry Pasquale.
She immediately gets Pasquale to renovate his van, getting rid of burger and chips and introducing vegan food and juices. Pasquale asks Malatesta how he can get out of this situation - and all is revealed.
The humour extends to the songs, as Higgins explains: "Our Ernesto is a wannabe singer/ songwriter who wants to be Ed Sheeran and appear on The X Factor, so all of his arias and songs sound like slightly bad imitations of Ed Sheeran songs," he says.
To scale the orchestra down to fit the venues on this tour, he decided to incorporate the musicians into the action.
"The way that Daisy and I work is to integrate music and dramatic ideas together," he says. "We wanted to think of a scenario where it is actually believable that people would be playing instruments as part of the drama. So we came up with the idea of people busking, musicians jamming together on the street and so on.
"The next question was what instruments and musicians would you find getting together on the streets of a large Welsh town like Cardiff or Newport after the pubs had closed? We came up with piano accordion, tenor saxophone, a couple of strings and a Miles Davis style trumpet."
Without a big chorus to take on tour, the big chorus numbers will be sung by the musicians.
"It's a big ask: suddenly we had to find musicians that were not only good violin players, but that were happy to be in costume and act on stage while also holding a tune," he says.
Another vital element is Elstein's set, which transports the audience to downtown Cardiff and positions the piece very firmly in the present day.
"Daisy Evans and I originally imagined that the piece could be performed from an operational kebab van that we would drive in to a parking lot and serve chips, while engaging audiences that might not even consider coming to see opera! From then, it's developed into a practical touring piece while still keeping the essence of the greasy guilty pleasure food van," says Elstein.
The renovation of Pasquale's establishment in Norina's hands sees it get a full-on, in-vogue transformation. Much to Don Pasquale's dismay, the fresh plant-based establishment has him embracing his hipster vibes with no gravy in sight - with all the comedy that this exudes.
The involvement of the musicians and the audience will make the show an immersive and refreshingly different opera experience - the embodiment of Evans' vision for modern opera that has its roots in an early experience of irreverent Cornish theatre company Kneehigh.
"I went to see Kneehigh Theatre's Tristan and Yseult when I was 16, and that was when I knew what I wanted to do," she says. "It was that element of ensemble that really struck me. They were all from different disciplines and they all danced, sang and played.
"You were watching this amazing collective energy up on stage, which was much more interesting, I think. I wanted to do what these innovative theatre practitioners were doing with theatre but apply those techniques to opera - to immerse the audience and adapt the narrative to better reflect modern society."
Underpinning all this is Evans' strongly held belief that opera is a highly relevant art form for the modern day: this is why she feels it is important to be bringing opera to towns and cities with smaller theatres unable to accommodate the full-scale company.
"I went into opera in the first place because I saw in it an amazing art form that was not living the life it should live," she says. "More people need to experience it. It's very museumy and thought of as a very white upper-class art form. But it's not opera that's the problem - it's how it's presented. We all talk about making opera more accessible, but doing the same opera and just reducing the ticket price to get bums on seats isn't enough."
This new version of Don Pasquale is an example of how an opera can be totally reimagined while retaining its original magic. It's set to make a powerful impression on its audiences, who will be placed at the heart of the action.
"It's important to me that this is an immersive, operatic experience - that the audience is an active part of the drama rather than stuck behind a proscenium arch not involved at all," says Evans. "We embrace and work with the space."
| Don Pasquale tours Wales until July 13. For more details visit www.wno.org.uk
Andrew Shore as Don Pasquale
<B Quirjn de Lang and Harriet Eyley and, left, Nico Darmanin
Harriet Eyley as Norina in Don Pasquale Jimmy Swindells
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|Publication:||Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||May 25, 2019|
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