We must admit, we internally cringed a little on first hearing of The Arts Place’s latest production – a reimagining of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. ‘An Italian opera with Singlish’, the tagline cheerily ran. Transplanting an 18th-century comic masterpiece into modern-day Singapore is certainly a risky move, one that might be deliciously relatable – or sibeh jialat, depending on the skill of the mashup.
Well, we went, we saw, and this rollicking remake thoroughly conquered our hearts. In the expert hands of Artistic Director Martin Ng, this classic comedy of penny-pinching old buffoons and crafty young lovers feels fun and fresh, without skimping on operatic quality.
The original tale of misers punished hardly needs updating, though the characters are brought to life in uniquely Singaporean guise. The comedy kicks off with Ernesto, nephew of the elderly Don Pasquale, refusing to wed a rich wife of his towkay uncle’s choosing, because he’s in love with a poor widow, Norina. Don Pasquale promptly disowns him, deciding to marry a docile wife and father his own heir. Little does he know, however, that his sweet bride is the foxy Norina in disguise – who, as soon as the ‘marriage papers’ are signed, proceeds to spend his money by the bucketload as comeuppance.
Classics purist or not, you can’t help but love an opera whose lead character yells “Wah piang eh!” upon receiving a mountain of bills, courtesy of his lovely wife. Local scriptwriter Jasmine Teo replaced Don Pasquale’s recitatives (narrative songs that are closer to normal speech) with Singlish dialogue, while keeping its superb repertoire of bel canto arias. The result is an Italian musical treat wackily mingled with spouts of local dialects, and the singers switch between them with aplomb.
Taiwanese bass Ming-Mou Hsieh sings the titular role. His is an exceptionally likable Don Pasquale, even when spouting money-minded prejudices that Singaporeans might find uncannily familiar: “Rich marry poor become poor!” In the arias, his rich tones are unfortunately drowned out by the orchestra at many points. This Taiwanese singer handles his Singlish splendidly, however, whether it’s despairing “buay tahan ah!” or squawking “贱女人!” (an impolite Mandarin term for a floozy). It’s a local flavour of Don Pasquale’s materialism that’s highly recognizable – think your jolly, bigoted grandfather whom you still love.
The floozy in question, the brash chiobu Norina, is played delightfully by Singaporean soprano Teng Xiang Ting. Striding across the stage in tank top and miniskirt, she floats her high notes with exuberant flair and nails the sassy trill of Norina’s signature aria, an ode to her own powers of ensnaring men (Quel guardio, il cavaliere). And from pretending to be a sheltered convent girl (“I never go clubbing before”), to smirking about how she’s got Don Pasquale figuratively by the balls (“Women’s Charter!”), Teng delivers her modern-day lines with oodles of charming irony.
Joining the fray is Singaporean baritone Alvin Tan as Dr Malatesta, the trickster who helps bring the young lovers together. His infectiously merry duets with Teng’s Norina, as they hatch their plot, were a highlight of the night. Throw in the pure, lustrous tones of Oscar Ruben’s lovestruck Ernesto, and you’ve got one dazzling opera on your hands.
Opera tends to get a bad rap in Singapore as a stuffy affair. But with its timeless warning about the perils of being moneyfaced, peppered with sly modern-day winks to Crazy Rich Asians and Crimewatch, this irreverent Don Pasquale certainly dusts off our assumptions. It’s a bravura work for The Arts Place’s first opera – the start, we hope, of many more to come.