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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848)
Don Pasquale - dramma buffo in three acts
Norina…Eva Mei (soprano)
Don Pasquale…Alessandro Corbelli (bass)
Ernesto…Antonino Siragusa (tenor)
Dottor Malatesta…Roberto de Candia (baritone)
Un Notaro…Giorgio Gatti (bass)
Chorus of the Teatro Lirico–Cagliari/Paolo Vero
Orchestra of the Teatro Lirico–Cagliari/Gérard Korsten
Recorded at the Teatro Lirico, Cagliari, February 2002.
TDK CDM-OPDP [75.43+42.12]

To listen to a play on the radio is to let your imagination run free. Similarly when listening to a studio recording of an opera, the imagination can soar. So it can even when listening to the recording of a live production before an audience. There are then potential constraints on that imagination: whether audience laughter at a visual joke, excessive stage noises or variable vocal sound.

The distinctiveness of timbre or voice of duettists is fundamental to the CD listener who has only aural distinction. The theatregoer can see the many differences on stage. This problem does not exist for the CD listener fluent in the language of production or for those with the libretto. However, where no libretto is provided (as here) or where you just want to listen and not follow the libretto, all in not necessarily clear.

On this recording Alessandro Corbelli sings the title role whilst Roberto de Candia sings Dr Malatesta. The problem is that they do not have a timbre noticeably distinct from each other. Therefore in their duets, which provide much of the early comic foundation, I found it difficult to be certain who was singing. Of course, as soon as I had armed myself with the libretto all such problems disappeared. Therefore unless you have the libretto handy, or have a very finely tuned ear, this is a disadvantage of this recording.

Similar remarks apply to the many ‘asides’. I have no doubt that they were delivered "to" the audience with the singer immediately turning back to the events on stage: but when sung exactly as the rest of the recitative, then, without the visual aid or the libretto it is impossible to appreciate them.

Those I regard as the downsides to this recording. Now let me turn to the upsides: not least of which is the immediacy of sound and the feeling of ‘being there’. Curiously on this recording the sound of stage movement is not obtrusive.

The overture sets the bel canto scene with some seriously good lyrical playing paced well with good dynamics. Indeed by the end there is an almost urgent need for foot tapping.

Don Pasquale is strongly characterised by Corbelli. He manages to invoke precisely what Donizetti intended to achieve: laughter at his folly and sympathy for his consequent predicament. It is a fine line which Corbelli treads faultlessly. Un foco insolito is delivered with excellent self-delusion: here is a live production advantage as we hear him walk about the stage looking forward to rejuvenation by marriage.

If his duets with de Candia leave something to be desired then his scenes with both Siragusa (Ernesto) and Mei (Norina) make up for it.

Siragusa’s slightly sharp timbred tenor leaves us in no doubt that here is Ernesto the lyrical love struck swain of true bel canto genre. If his early disbelief at Pasquale’s impending marriage is delivered with little scorn, humour or ridicule, nothing holds him down for his lyrical flights. And when that is combined with the grumpy Pasquale in the background during Prender moglie?, the effect is delightful. The scene continues into Due parole where, against excellent orchestral pacing, they each review their own position: tenor colouring, style and heartache against bass self-righteous fulmination – great fun.

Of course Sinagusa comes into his own at the start of Act II. Whilst the singing is clear and controlled with good dynamics and pacing I was not entirely convinced that his characterisation aroused my sympathy. However his last Act Com’è gentil was all persuasive – even if delivered too distant from a microphone – so persuasive indeed that I found myself humming it several days later.

Norina – or Sofronia – is a ‘gift’ of a role for Eva Mei, who, like Corbelli, has sung it many times before. If I have a reservation about her singing it is that she has become a little hard-edged when being forceful ‘on high’. Otherwise she demonstrate well her experience of the work. Her opening reading of the romantic novel emphasises the delightful irony, with vocal melodrama and later some splendid almost floated notes. She combines well with de Candia to bring off the ‘convent girl’ unworldly simplicity - as she does with Corbelli. Here is excellent vocal acting each drawing strength from the interplay.

She moves convincingly in ensnaring Corbelli into matrimony and then becomes not a simple shrew but ‘a shrew with a heart’ as Donizetti intended. After the (in)famous slap there is true tenderness in É duretta la lezione (following Ah! è finita)with very smooth modulation to the unanticipated keys. This is an enjoyable performance by Mei with some superbly delivered middle-note–hitting runs and trills.

I often think of Dr Malatesta in the same terms as Dr Falke. Whilst Falke is bent on entertaining revenge, Malatesta’s intent is to show his old friend the folly of his intent. Each is master of the plot if not master of ceremonies. Sadly I do not think de Candia brings this off. There is little boisterous involvement. The description of his ‘sister’ in Bella siccome would not have Don Pasquale quivering with expectation: there is no frisson of excitement. Similarly his involvement in Norina’s lesson seems somewhat flat. Conversely his reading of Ernesto’s letter is full of expression, even entertaining exaggeration, and when he sings in the duets and ensembles he is a committed participant.

Indeed in the ensembles the totality may well be greater than the sum of the parts. Whilst I have a reservation about ‘togetherness’ in the high speed patter song in Act III (de Candia and Corbelli), the duets and ensembles are a strong feature of this CD. I enjoyed particularly the trio in Act II cued to start at Via, da brava (de Candia, Mei and Corbelli) and the last scene of that Act (all four lead soloists). That is save for the last high note of Mei’s which does not appear on some other recordings. That ensemble is an excellent example of the very good balance maintained almost throughout between orchestra and soloists.

The additional small part of the Notary (sung at the first production by Federico Lablache, the son of Luigi Lablache who sang the title role) sung here by Giorgio Gatti gives little opportunity for characterisation. There is little time to appreciate Gatti’s hesitant repetitions.

The choral role is also small. They feature in two scenes and appear in a third. Good vocal precision and expression with some excellent dynamics make a very positive contribution. A small role but one very well discharged.

As I have said, the accompanying booklet does not contain the libretto. There is a helpful synopsis and a discourse on the relevance of the Commedia dell’arte to this opera. What I would particularly commend is the success in putting Acts I and II on the first CD with Act III on the second. This has the enormous advantage of enabling the whole of Act II to be heard as a fluid continuous piece.

Robert McKechnie


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