No one knows whether W.C. Fields was thinking of Don Pasquale when he delivered the phrase, "never give a sucker an even break." But when it comes to the plot of Donizetti's farce, the celebrated American comedian was right on target.
Pasquale, the well-to-do elderly bachelor in this delightful opera buffa, never has a fighting chance against the conspirators bent on teaching him a lesson (and a costly one at that) — spearheaded by a young widow who is arguably every lustful old man's worst nightmare: Norina. And thanks to the Metropolitan Opera's November 13 matinee performance, simulcast live around the globe, tens of thousands got to see Anna Netrebko throw this poor man a sucker punch that will likely be remembered for years.
Norina is a role I suspect every soprano is eager to perform. Beyond the shapely bel canto arias, cavatinas and ensemble gems (particularly the amusing duets), you get to marry a rich man, shop 'till you drop, prance around the house while throwing hissy fits — and slap your husband in the face. Netrebko looked like she relished the part.
Written in 1843, some five years before the composer's death, Donizetti's last opera stands at the twilight of the graceful, uncluttered melodic lyricism of the Italian bel canto era (Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti) that would soon give way to the heavier dramatic touches of Verdi. Of Donizetti's trio of celebrated opera buffas, L'Elisir d'Amore, La Fille du Regiment and Don Pasquale, the latter is widely regarded as his best effort in this comic genre.
In addition to Netrebko, the Met's current revival of the 2006 Otto Schenk production (with sets and costumes by Rolf Langenfass) reprises Mariusz Kwiecien as Dr. Malatesta. Simulcast audiences who had hoped to see the Polish baritone as Escamillo during the Met's stunning Carmen at the January 16 live simulcast last season (he took ill and was replaced last-minute by Teddy Tahu Rhodes) finally got their chance to see Kwiecien in Saturday's broadcast.
Sporting dark sunglasses befitting the cunning mastermind of the plot against the unfortunate old bachelor, Pasquale, Kwiecien crafted a wily figure capable of carrying out (with Norina's assistance) the charade that forms the storyline. The "moral" of the story, articulated during the final quartet at the end of the opera (which I'll paraphrase as "Don't you be messing with younger women, old man"), drew moans of abject disappointment from virtually every male in my theater — none of whom looked a day younger than 60.
There's an immediate attractiveness to Kwiecien's handsome and supple lyric baritone that capture's the listener's attention in his opening aria, Bella siccome un angelo — in which he kindles the flames of Pasquale's passions for the Don's young and innocent new bride. Kwiecien's first-act duet with Netrebko in Scene 2 (Pronta io son) — as he coaches Norina on how to play the part of his naïve Convent-dwelling sister, Sofronia — was smack on-pitch, strong in rhythmic thrust (particularly in the rapid triplets section) and perfectly in-sync with Levine's lively beat. And there was not a hint of trouble in his cleanly articulated parlando duet with Don Pasquale at the end of the second scene in Act 2. Kwiecien's cleanly delivered rapid-fire sextet figures, on a single pitch during the machine-gun patter section, dazzled the ears and soared easily above the orchestra. Following hefty applause, the final section of the duet was reprised.
As Pasquale, John Del Carlo's bass-baritone was somewhat less convincing during the patter sections, and he was barely able to keep with Kwiecien both in their second act duet and in the first-act finale. Still, the veteran singer cut a largely convincing figure of an elderly man long-accustomed to having his way and seeking to teach his nephew, Ernesto, a stern lesson in obedience and submission.
Del Carlo tried hard (at times perhaps a bit too hard) to project his comedic persona, using facial expressions to forge a variety of stock reactions — from wide-eyed joy and hope as Malatesta describes the virginal Sofronia, to the rapid up-down movement of his jaw in a tacit stutter of incredulity as his new bride grows increasingly rebellious. When Del Carlo sings his first-act Ah, un foco insolita while sitting in a chair, his knees begin shaking in anticipation of love and lost youth, and his clumsy (albeit unsuccessful) attempts to touch the coy girl are good for a laugh to two — but hardly more. Del Carlo's greatest acting success came with his smooth and compelling transition from a haughty control-freak to a deflated, broken-down sympathetic brute after the wife-from-hell slaps him in the face. When the now-broken Pasquale laments that there's nothing left to do but hang or drown himself, the farce almost stops dead in its tracks — revealing a sympathetic, flesh-and-blood human being who hardly seems deserving of this misfortune.
In voice, Del Carlo maintained an authoritative vocal presence required for this basso buffo role, although he often had difficulty keeping up with Levine's beat throughout the performance (it should be noted that unlike Kwiecien, Del Carlo made little eye contact with the conductor). And his 94 successive "C's" in the patter duet, while achieving the intended comedic effect, strung together as a long, single drone.
The comic elements within opera buffa require snappy ensemble efforts on the part of the actors as well as impeccable timing for the sight-gags and busy stage action endemic to this genre. This production, however, never got the timing quite right — largely because of the persuasive visual presence of Netrebko, who overshadowed any one sharing the stage with her at any given time.
Like Garanca in last season's production of the Met's Carmen, Netrebko is simply too compelling a figure to take one's eyes off her — whether she's bouncing up and down on the sofa bed, stretching stocking over her legs or beating up on the hapless Pasquale. Vocally, hers was one of only a number of strong efforts — although here, too, she stood out as the only high voice among a sea of male voices. And while the lightness of her character Norina (a.k.a. Sofronia) traditionally indicates a soubrette, the increasingly dark timbres of Anna Nebrebko's lyric soprano (occasionally hinting at the darker hues of a mezzo-soprano) seemed only to enhance her dominant presence onstage.
Netrebko's signature cavatina, Quel guardo, il cavaliere — which she brazenly delivers on her veranda while suggestively rolling a pair of stocking up her legs — displays the unmistakable charm and allure of the femme fatale who knows a thing or two about men and how to handle them, and she easily navigated through the many skips and coloraturas of her character's elastic vocal line. Her Act 3 Garden Duet with paramour Ernesto (Matthew Polenzani), Tornami a dir che m'ami, was especially beautiful — as Donizetti takes a cue from Mozart in his use of two clarinets, playing in thirds, to signal love.
Matthew Polenzani's Ernesto, Pasquale's defiant nephew, was entirely convincing as the confused heart-throb forced to choose between his true love, Norina, and the Pasquale family fortune, and he possesses a smooth lyric tenor and liquid legato well-suited to bel canto. Polenzani's "woe is me" aria at the opening of Act 2 (Checherò lontana terra), set lugubriously in a minor key following a maudlin trumpet solo of great length, revealed a wide array of dynamic contrasts and secure high notes that never quivered or wavered — no matter how lengthy the phrase. His sensitively delivered duet with Netrebko in the Garden Scene during Act 3, in which the two lovers express their unwavering devotion to one-another, made the conspiracy against Pasquale seem all the more understandable — and forgivable.
Rolf Langenfass's sets create a vision of Don Pasquale's bachelor abode that, like the Don himself, reveals a disheveled, dusty old caricature of a once-proud institution that over the years has fallen into gross disrepair. The second floor of the house, supported precariously by a single Corinthian column, is connected to the first level by a winding staircase that, considering the Don's limited physical conditioning, explains why his bed remains on the ground floor. Norina's rooftop veranda, overlooking a series of nearby rooftops (and cheerfully bathed in moonlight by Duane Schuler), is embellished with a recliner, an umbrella and a prominently displayed clothesline from which dangle a pair of corsets and underwear.
It's difficult to believe that, after some 40 years and 2,500 performances at the Met, James Levine is conducting his first run of Don Pasquale performances. The Met's music director had been slated to conduct the original 1996 production but had to withdraw because of chronic back problems. Levine, whose well-publicized health problems have led to a number to cancelations over the past few seasons, did not look entirely pain free at the podium — although the light and crisp Italian overture, with its immaculately executed grace-notes and sparkling dotted-rhythmic figures (Norina's theme) suggested otherwise. Nor was there any sign of discomfort when the overture came to an end, as a clearly delighted Levine, smiling from ear-to-ear, raised the concertmaster's hand in triumph.
Outside of the finale there isn't a whole lot for the chorus to do in Don Pasquale, but the lengthy third-act ensemble number, comprising a colorful assortment of servants and chambermaids in Act 3 (Che interminabile andiriveni), was well-staged and sung with enthusiasm. With the aid of a small television screen projecting the podium, Met Chorus Director Donald Palumbo faithfully mirrored Levine's beats while conducted Polenzani's offstage serenade (Com' è gentil), accompanied by a small troupe comprising mandolins, tambourine and a small chorus.
By David Abrams
Photos, from top to bottom: New York Met; Beth Bergman (2006 production); Ruby Washington/ The New York Times.
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