by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The opera was a November 13, 2010 telecast of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, one of his last operas (he wrote only three more after it, one which he left unfinished) and a comedy about a miserly old man, the title character (baritone John Del Carlo), who as the story begins is having an argument with his nephew Ernesto (tenor Matthew Polenzani) because Pasquale has arranged a marriage between Ernesto and a rich woman, but Ernesto only has eyes for a poor but nice girl, Norina (Anna Netrebko). As a result, Pasquale announces that he’s throwing Ernesto out of his home, disinheriting him and getting married himself. Dr. Malatesta (Mariusz Kweicien), a family friend, hatches a plot: he tells Pasquale that he’s found a bride for him, his sister Sofronia, who’s just left a convent school and can be counted on to be both pretty and demure. “Sofronia” is really Norina in disguise, and Malatesta sets up a fake “marriage” between her and Pasquale, following which she puts off his sexual advances, runs up huge bills for clothes, furniture and art, and behaves like a shrew — all to get Pasquale to break off the marriage and give permission for Ernesto to marry Norina instead.
It’s not much of a plot and Donizetti and his librettists (various sources credit the libretto to Salvatore Cammarano — also the librettist for Lucia di Lammermoor and Verdi’s Il Trovatore — Giovanni Ruffini and Angelo Anelli, the last of whom had originally concocted the story for an 1813 opera by Stefano Pavesi called Ser Marc’antonio) don’t give it either the emotional depth and resonance Mozart and da Ponte could have given it in the 1780’s or the sheer comic verve Gilbert and Sullivan could have in the late 19th century (though the opera, especially in Pasquale’s part, features a lot of double-time patter singing that anticipates Gilbert and Sullivan), but it’s a nicely entertaining opera. Ironically, Donizetti, writing towards the end of his career (1843 — he was forced to retire due to syphilis the following year and died in 1848), came up with an opera that moved surprisingly (for an Italian composer of the bel canto era) smoothly from recitative to aria to ensembles — though the down side is that it doesn’t feature any really big “hits,” nothing on the order of the Mad Scene from Lucia or “O luce di quest’anima” from the otherwise almost forgotten Linda di Chamounix. (About the only aria from the piece that’s had any independent life is Ernesto’s “Com’e gentil,” which Caruso recorded — and which was an older song Donizetti interpolated into the opera at the request of Mario, the tenor who sang in the premiere.)
The Met’s performance was a good reflection of the opera itself — smoothly conducted by James Levine, directed with admirable restraint (oddly, the Met’s cast sheet on the broadcast doesn’t list a director, though Otto Schenk is credited with the physical production — which is a good one except that it made both Pasquale and his home look too much like Scrooge and his abode for my taste, and Del Carlo caught the spirit of his surroundings by overdoing the crotchetiness — a more Hans Sachs-like Pasquale would make the piece considerably more moving) and well sung by Netrebko (the only real “star” in the cast, though this is sufficiently an ensemble piece she really doesn’t stand out), Polenzani (who’s also cute in a teddy-bearish way; he’s a bit strident on his high notes but he’s convincing as the boyish lover even though he’s also sung Tamino in The Magic Flute and I’d probably rather watch him in that), Del Carlo and Kweicien (who seemed oddly young and small in stature for a bass). The piece’s ending is a bit disappointing — an ensemble in which Pasquale agrees with the other characters that marriage isn’t meant for someone who’s 70 years old — and I couldn’t help thinking that W. S. Gilbert would have probably ended it with the rich woman Pasquale was trying to marry Ernesto off to at the beginning appear as an on-stage character (played, of course, by what Anna Russell called “The Big Fat Contralto with a Voice like a Foghorn”!) and insist on marrying Pasquale at the end.