17 Feb 2012

Don Pasquale at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées

Critics. Can you get along without us? It is possible to reflect on this when the production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale is shown on television tonight.

Critics always show up on the first night but how different will the third performance be on the Europe-wide channel Arte “live” (well, with a few hours delay at 10:10 p.m. CET) from Paris’ Théâtre des Champs Elysées? After tomorrow it will be available on their internet site, ARTE Live Web, and can be streamed to computers around the world for the next six months or so.


Will you like the staging? For our jaded eyes, having old Don Pasquale hawking cut-rate lighting fixtures out of the back of an old Citroën truck did not please. With our extensive opera-going history — part of the job — we have seen this kind of “update” so often before it seems a bit of a cliché. You might like the refreshing change from the beige, overstuffed furnishings he is normally surrounded with in traditional productions. Now a hardscrabble salesman, he still retains his sense of privilege by having the costumes for this production the work of Christian Lacroix and his suit, seen from the eyes of 1950’s Italy, has him sartorially splendid. The other major plus is that he is sung by the veteran Allessandro Corbelli and it would be hard to imagine another baritone today that could so effectively inhabit these clothes and so richly portray this delicious role.



The director, Denis Podalydès, a regular at the Comédie-Française, here stages his second opera and the characters had carefully defined roles but he stuck with the traditional path of “opera buffa” with its broad gestures and overwrought emotions. The old man contracts to marry to smash the hopes of the nephew in his charge for an inheritance but the story has an old man emotionally swept away with the possibility of a new love in his life, from which he is brutally brought down. The young tenor Francesco Demuro, a name to note, is similarly wrought with passion for the young girl his disinheritance bars him from having. The flouncing free-spirited character of Norina rejects the contract of obeisance with a persistent broad brush. There is more detail to be mined in this story but new eyes watching this masterpiece of the genre for the first time will find the opera’s story clearly told with emphasis on fun and contrast.

Singing, in addition to the splendid Don, was at a high level. Italian tenor Francesco Demuro gets he first big aria, “Sogno soave e casto,” in the first minutes of the opera and there was a vague unease and occasional imprecise intonation we did not see later where his voice was rich in color and pleasing to the ear. With tonight’s performance, very likely, you will likely hear more assured and free delivery. Soprano Désirée Rancatore has recently developed into a serious star and, forced high notes excepted, gives a near-perfect reading of the self-assured girl, and, like her tenor lover, is young and appealing in the role. A very strong reading of Malatesta by Gabriele Viviani completes a exceptional vocal quartet.

The Orchestre National de France, one of France’s top orchestras, was in the pit and onstage was the excellent Radio France Choir. The dynamic conductor Enrique Mazzola, on opening night, did not have the orchestra’s undivided attention and attacks were imprecise. Later the orchestra seemed to warm up to their job and played with more care. The choir, wearing what Lacroix imagines locals were wearing at that time, had no trouble finding their volume or enthusiasm. The story, despite the reservations, was clearly told and the singing was generally engaging. After a dismal opera season so far in Paris even a modest success is more than welcome. If you have access to the internet distribution, it is recommended.

Frank Cadenhead