Don Pasquale

Gaetano Donizetti, libretto by Giovanni Ruffini
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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Beverley Sills Credit: Metropolitan Opera

Gaetano Donizetti’s opera buffa Don Pasquale, a comic masterpiece, premièred in 1843. The characters are stock, straight out of the comedia dell’arte and great fun for singers and audiences alike. The opera has remained a staple of opera houses worldwide, its melodies and gusto undiminished.

Donizetti (1797–1848) was astonishingly prolific (“do you think I cannot write an opera in two weeks?”). He was justly accused of writing too much and too quickly. He wrote over 70 operas in his 25-year career.

John Dexter’s high-spirited production, conducted by Nicola Rescigno and handsomely designed and costumed by Desmond Heeley, dates from 1979. The production marked Beverly Sills’s farewell to The Met.

Pasquale (Gabriel Bacquier), a foolish, 70-year-old bachelor, disinherits his disobedient nephew Ernesto, who is in love with a young widow, and decides to marry and have lots of children to spite him and leave him penniless. His physician, Dr Malatesta (Håkan Hagegård), offers his ‘sister’ as a bride and then persuades Norina (the young widow Ernesto loves) to pretend to be his sister and play the role of a simple girl just out of the convent and terribly shy.

The moment Pasquale sees Norina, he is besotted and marries her on the spot; only to find she makes his life a misery, spending a fortune, bullying and patronising him. It doesn’t take him long to want a divorce.

There are so many high spots. Håkan Hagegård singing the praise of his ‘sister’ and plotting with Norina to drive Pasquale crazy are two of them. He has a great duet with an enraged Pasquale, which the audience liked so much Hagegård and Bacquier took a curtain call there and then. Hagegård is an elegant and stylish Dr Malatesta. Beverly Sills (beautifully dressed) is vivacious and has a lot of fun behaving really badly, especially when she decides to go to the theatre and slaps his face, leaving Pasquale dumbfounded.

Ernesto (Alfredo Kraus), as his name suggests, is very serious. He is genuinely distressed when he finds out his uncle is going to marry the woman he loves. He and Norina have a soothing and touching duet in their reunion in the garden.

Don Pasquale begins as a comic character, and Gabriel Bacquier is very amusing, but when he finds he has been tricked and he is a laughing stock, the prank is no longer funny. The prank is cruel (as Norina acknowledges). Bacquier is genuinely pathetic. Not for long, of course, since we are, after all, watching an opera buffa.

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale is very enjoyable. The excellent singers are excellent actors and perfect for the genre.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera On Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch