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Donizetti's Don Pasquale at Jubilee Park,
Canary Wharf London

a free, live outdoor performance by the Garden Opera Company

After I joined an entrepreneurial networking group, I found the following event on a London Meetup web page:
"From the Canary Wharf website:"Wednesday 20th August – Jubilee Park, Canary Wharf from 6 pm to 8.15 pm. Donizetti’s popular comic opera ‘Don Pasquale’ comes to the Wharf for one night only in a production by the much loved Garden Opera Company. Bring a picnic and Enjoy!"

I pondered over whether to join this group of opera lovers or ask my friend Steve who works at Canary Wharf to gather up a bunch of his colleagues and my ex-colleagues.

In the end, Steve, his colleague Samantha, and my friend Andy watched this adapted opera together, on plastic sheets given out by the Canary Wharf Summer Festival team, amid bottles of rose and white wine and sushi from Waitrose. I say "adapted opera" because it was not only sung in English but part-spoken as well. The ensemble of upright piano, violins, cello, clarinet/flute, and trumpet sat under a canopy to the left of the small covered stage. A trumpet in a chamber ensemble?

Around us sat other opera fanatics, forming a cozy group of dedicated die-hards, equipped with picnic blankets, jackets, food, and umbrellas that shot up at the beginning of the third act. The wind didn't dissuade us, neither did the rain. How often do you get to see live opera? A free opera? An outdoor opera? In a language you understand? Hardly ever.

As usual, the scene was set at the start of the overture. A man cloaked in matching orange briefs and tank-top paraded around a blonde woman equally nearly naked. Clearly they're in love, Ernesto and Norina. The 70's fashion of outrageous bright colours and mismatched patterns was enough to make you laugh.

I had trouble figuring out who played whom, for the colourful 3-pound brochure did not give a one-to-one mapping. There was not a separate insert identifying which of the two tenors played Ernesto, which of the two sopranos played Norina, which of the two basses played the Don. I deduced that James Mcoran-Campbell played Dr Malatesta, the Don's doctor, not the Hong Kong-born Freddie Tong. By googling images on the Web, I guessed that the other bass singer, Leon Berger did not look like the Don Pasquale on stage. Who plays whom surely is an important point - and I wished I had been given clues.

Deryck Hamon was convincing as the elderly bachelor Don Pasquale, Ernesto's uncle, who was not happy that his nephew refused to marry a woman of his choosing. The Don decided he would himself get married and disinherit his nephew, who had been waiting for an inheritance to marry his penniless Norina. Dr Malatesta arranged to get Don Pasquale quickly married to his shy spinster sister who had spent her entire life at a convent. Except, it was not really his sister --- but Ernesto's Norina posing as his sister. It was a plot to teach Don Pasquale a lesson in love.

While I understood this opera much better because of the English text, I could not help but recall what a neighbour of mine said --- that vocal music sounded better in Italian than Dutch. I wondered if the music had to be adjusted to the English translation. And how much of the recitatives had been cut out, replaced by the spoken word. And whether these adaptations made the original opera, one of the last of Donizetti's 65 prolific output, less "authentic." An opera snob would also complain about the music being reduced to a small ensemble. But the practicalities of cost, transport, accessibility (transparency), and flexibility (indoor AND outdoor) dictate such changes necessary.

The Garden Opera Company, being a touring company that aims to appeal to wide audiences, actively translates and adapts the operas they perform. Since 1994, they have been performing around 60 venues annually in the UK and abroad. Theirs is a charity that engages in building community, education, outreach, and keeping the spirit of opera alive. Bravo!

When it began to rain in the last act, we all dutifully opened our umbrellas, covered ourselves with assorted jackets and plastic sheets, and huddled ever closer together to witness the final dramatic developments. The doctor's sister, once married, flipped from a timid, shy nun to a demanding, loud-mouthed big spender, changing the interior decor into bright pink everywhere. It was not what the Don had expected. Funnily enough, I read in one synopsis I had printed from the Internet earlier --- the moral of the story is -- if you marry late, be prepared to suffer.

To summarise the four operas I've seen this summer in London, see the matrix below.

  indoor outdoor outdoor (big screen)
original (Italian) Cosi Fan Tutte Barber of Seville Marriage of Figaro
(English surtitles)
English   Don Pasquale  

What next I wonder? I've laughed enough at opera buffa, I need to see an opera that is not funny.

22 August 2008

Related links:
Garden Opera Company
Don Pasquale synposis
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848):
Donizetti society
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Anne Ku at Ilp in May 2001
Anne Ku

writes about her travels, conversations, thoughts, events, music, and anything else that is interesting enough to fill a web page. She has written and produced two chamber operas, premiered in Utrecht, Netherlands. See her publication list for more.
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