Mariame Clément on Don Pasquale

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This October Glyndebourne Tour 2015 will kick off with Donizetti’s sparkling comedy Don Pasquale. Director Mariame Clément tells us about bringing this extravagant production to the stage.

For those who are unfamiliar with this opera, what are the things which make it so special?

The answer might just be unexpected subtlety, in the score as well as the libretto, especially when it comes to depicting the characters. There are only four main characters, and they are drawn from traditional figures in the Italian commedia dell’arte, but they are far from being stereotypical puppets. None of them is completely likeable or completely obnoxious. They all have their weaknesses. In other words, they are human. On the flipside, there is also the cold, devilish figure of Dr. Malatesta, who brings something dark and evil to the piece. All these elements make Don Pasquale far more interesting than a standard comedy.

This production of Don Pasquale is a visually stunning piece. Can you tell us a little about what inspired your take on this opera?

When [Designer] Julia Hansen and I decided to play the piece in a period setting, our immediate concern was to avoid a set that was merely decorative. As is often the case in our productions, we wanted the set not to just be a backdrop, but to be almost a character of its own, an active part of the storytelling. For Don Pasquale we created a revolving set which is full of surprises. We call it our ‘jewel box’. It initially presents the characters in their ‘natural environment’ and each costume corresponds to one specific room, but as the piece goes on the rooms and costumes start mixing.

You’ve spoken of your dilemma over whether to set your production in modern times, or retain a period setting. What do you think Don Pasquale has to say that will speak to a contemporary audience?

We initially thought of transposing the piece to a modern setting, but that option soon lost its appeal – it felt almost too obvious. I think that one should be wary of pieces that seem very easy to modernise. Ironically, this can often be a sign that one can relate to the pieces in a modern way without the need to move it to a contemporary setting. Don Pasquale offers situations which could be very funny in a modern setting: the rich old man in search of a young wife; a rebellious teenager sulking in his bedroom; an ambitious woman longing for money (and for a young lover). But a more interesting challenge is how you show this in period setting, and still make it relatable. You want the characters to be human and close to us, and their issues to be recognisable, otherwise there is simply nothing at stake in the piece.

In Festival 2015 you directed another Donizetti opera, the UK premiere of Poliuto. How do the two operas compare?

In a way, you cannot have two more remote pieces: a light, almost silly comedy, and a tragedy about Christian martyrs, tackling religious and political themes. Yet the attention given to the characters and the care with which they are depicted is similar in both operas. Just as Don Pasquale goes beyond archetypes, Poliuto takes the eternal soprano-tenor-baritone triangle of the bel canto tradition and makes its characters come to life in a very specific and deeply moving manner.

Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on at the moment and when we can expect to see your next production on stage?

My next production will be Rossini’s Armida at Opera Ghent – having staged his comedies, moving to one of the great tragedies is a little like going from Don Pasquale to Poliuto – very intimidating! I will then go back to comedy for my Covent Garden début – Chabrier’s L’Etoile, a delightfully silly piece. And I will finish this season with a rarity – Wagner’s Liebesverbot in Strasbourg. Variety is one of the many blessings in this job!

You can see Don Pasquale from 10–31 October 2015 at Glyndebourne and 3 November–4 December at venues around the country.