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Anna Netrebko as Norina and Matthew Polenzani as Ernesto [Photo by Marty Sohl courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]
08 Feb 2011

Don Pasquale, New York

Witty and airy as an after-dinner anecdote over biscuits and cognac, Don Pasquale (1844) is, unlikely as it may seem, almost the last opera Donizetti completed before his descent into the madness of tertiary syphilis.

G. Donizetti: Don Pasquale

Norina: Anna Netrebko; Don Pasquale: John Del Carlo; Ernesto: Barry Banks; Dr. Malatesta: Mariusz Kwiecien. Metropolitan Opera, chorus and orchestra, conducted by James Levine. Performance of February 4.

Above: Anna Netrebko as Norina and Matthew Polenzani as Ernesto

All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of Metropolitan Opera


He was 47, managing opera houses in Vienna and Paris, introducing new talents like Verdi, and could still turn out melodies to beat the band—so to speak—with ever more of a nod to tight scripts and psychological subtleties. With Rossini in retirement, Bellini dead, Verdi a tyro and Mercadante about to withdraw into academe, Donizetti was the most popular Italian composer in the world. Who knows where this would have led him had his career gone on (as Verdi’s, Mercadante’s, Pacini’s, Meyerbeer’s, Auber’s all did) till he was 65? Would he have composed operas for St. Petersburg, Berlin, London and New York? Can we doubt it?

Given the proper performers (Donizetti’s operas, even more than most, depend on the performer to put them over), Don Pasquale remains almost irresistible. The Met has had great success with Otto Schenk’s moderately updated production (O’Hearn-Merrill’s was better, funnier, lighter), and it is clear from last Friday’s performance that the touch-ups required for last fall’s HDTV movie theater broadcast have made it more stage-ready than ever. James Levine, in the pit, seemed especially to enjoy himself but the entire cast is infectiously frolicsome.

I had quibbles, however, with some of the singers: all good, but some a little graceless in their approach to this pearl-icing confection. Anna Netrebko is a prima donna, and her voice has gotten steadily larger and thicker while losing a top note or two. This makes her a good candidate for Anna Bolena, for example, a Donizetti role she is singing in its Met premiere next season, and even likelier as Bellini’s Sonnambula or Giulietta, in both of which roles she has been broadcast from Vienna. But the voice’s thickness, its inability to lighten up, is uncomfortable in a Norina. The lady must be laughing all the time, or we are disinclined to forgive her rather calculated assault on the wealth of the title character. Reri Grist, my first Met Norina, floated about the stage, almost pirouetting around a lovably flummoxed Fernando Corena, and the instant of her slap, the moment when she goes too far and knows it, was an instant transformation not merely in the music but in her attitude, as she pulled her hands to her cheeks in horror at what she’d done, and a genuine personality was displayed—as also affection for the old man. Netrebko can no longer manage that lightness, that speediness, and she cannot manage the top notes of her runs, which rise prettily only to stop short every time. (What is that note? D? She hasn’t even got a D?) The glittering final waltz did not glitter or twirl; Netrebko offered it … dutifully. Ljuba Petrova, who sang one performance of the opera here during the present production’s first season, was rather more what we are looking for: Not a dramatic prima donna but an old-fashioned canary coloratura whose charm and wit match her voice. And she had all the high notes!

PASQUALE_Don_Carlo_and_Netr.gifJohn Del Carlo as the title role and Anna Netrebko as Norina

Ernesto was sung by Barry Banks, whose voice has also changed over the years, from the spectacular instrument of the Flute/Thisbe in the Met’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and the heroic Oreste in Ermione that amazed New York. His legato line no longer flows comfortably; it is a tolerable but charmless substitute for the proper tenor elegance.

Buffo basses can get by for years with far less voice than John Del Carlo still possesses. He wittily deploys his great height and bulk and mugs in the very finest fettle. You can’t have Don Pasquale without a Pasquale, and the Met is right to hang on to this one.

The star of the show for dapper farce-performance, suave vocalism and bring-down-the-house sex appeal was Mariusz Kwiecien as Dr. Malatesta. There is nothing to object to in his singing (he doesn’t scream in this opera, as he tends to in Lucia or L’Italiana) or his scampering or his appeal, except that this is Dr. Malatesta and the opera is called Don Pasquale and the lovers are Ernesto and Norina. Why is the doctor the one we wait for, listen to, watch on stage? Most Malatestas “feed” their Norinas (without picking them up and tossing them about like throw pillows), accompany their Pasquales, take a line in the concerted passages. The character is a catalyst, not the focus of the opera, but Otto Schenk has got nothing so wrong as building this character up. If Malatesta is the center of attention, and has such a rich relationship with Norina … why do we need the tenor at all? He fades into the woodwork if Malatesta does not.

PASQUALE_Kwecien_and_Don_Ca.gifMariusz Kwiecien as Dr. Malatesta and John Del Carlo in the title role

But all these objections seemed to occur to few others in the audience last Friday, who all seemed to be tickled that they were having such fun, enjoying such a sparkling score in such an animated, Broadway-worthy performance, without having to drop a tear or think a thought at all. And isn’t that the sort of pleasure farce is supposed to provide?

John Yohalem

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