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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797–1848)
Don Pasquale -
dramma buffo in three acts (1843)
Don Pasquale…an old-fashioned, elderly bachelor, tight-fisted, credulous, obstinate but basically good-natured … Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass); Dottor Malatesta … a physician, good-humoured and enterprising, friend of Don Pasquale and also a close friend of Ernesto … Lucio Gallo (baritone); Ernesto … Don Pasquale’s nephew, an ardent young man in love with Norina …Gregory Kunde (tenor); Norina … a passionate young widow, will not tolerate contradiction, but honest and sensitive … Nuccia Focile (soprano); A notary … Claudio Giombi
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, Teattro alla Scala, Milan, 1994
Director: Stefano Vizioli
Region 0, AC-3, Classical, Colour, Dolby, DTS Surround Sound, DVD-Video, PAL, Subtitled. 1.33:1


A masterpiece of musical writing, soloists on cracking acting and vocal form, an orchestra mixing edge of the seat lyricism with urgent impassioned playing and a production team self-evidently enjoying itself: this is a classic DVD in every complimentary sense.


The potential for the unkind, in the joke played on Don Pasquale, is kept within bounds by the emphasis on the romp in which all excel and by the pathos after the dreadful slap: the great musical tenderness which follows with simple gestures from Norina depicts her great regret at a ‘step too far’.


The first uproarious chords set the background of laughter and pace. This is 1994 La Scala with their then musical director and favourite conductor who actually smiles several times. The overture can only be described as a delight: so thought the audience with at least one cry of ‘bravo’ amidst the immediately following applause. Brilliantly paced from the breakneck to breath-stopping lyrical joy: Donizetti at his witty best played with supreme phrasing and dynamic control. Let me put it simply: if you do not at least smile, if not laugh out loud at the end of the overture then you ‘ain’t got no soul’.


Ferruccio Furlanetto does not play Don Pasquale as a doddery ancient buffoon; but almost as a dilettante with a library and a collection of busts - reflecting the setting in Rome?. This is an older father figure of a man whom we can recognise and with whom perhaps empathise. Just occasionally Furlanetto gives away his mid-forties age at the date of this recording, by moving too easily around the stage and always gives it away with his stage-filling vocal authority – a particular delight in some of the recitatives where the deep brown vocal colouring is manifest. Having watched the recording several times I could not make up my mind whether Furlanetto was competing with the orchestra or vice versa, but just occasionally a less fulsome orchestra would have been preferable. This is a masterly performance by Furlanetto and demonstrates again his excellent acting and vocal skills both as a soloist and in duets and trios.


If Lucio Gallo (Dr. Malatesta) does not have the same vocal power that is made up for by his beauty of tone. His description of his ‘sister’ affords him ample opportunity for some gentle vocal colouring with ironical warmth. With only a brief recitative on stage alone, the role demands strong character interaction that Gallo delivers admirably and to which he adds excellent comic acting and timing.


Nuccia Focile (Norina/Sofronia) spends long periods alone on stage. Indeed the production makes great use of her charms throughout, and unusually for Ernesto’s aria Com’ gentil. Instead of Ernesto singing on stage with the chorus off stage, here Ernesto and chorus are both off stage whilst we watch Focile drifting round the stage in elegant poses and reacting to the words of his aria. It is superbly done and adds a definite je ne sais quoi to the production. Just very occasionally there is a hint of vocal harshness at forte on high but then she moves into open–throated bel canto lyricism. Later she vocally runs and trills with note middling coloratura and a relaxed flare for transferring from head to chest voice and back again without a waver. Focile’s characterisation is always of the highest order and with vocal skills to match she portrays an almost ideal Norina in this production.


Gregory Kunde (Ernesto) has the ideal voice for this love-sick swain/nephew. A distinctive crisp timbre with ringingly clear notes and diction to match. Here is great lyricism exemplified in his delivery of Sogno soave e casto moving on to his forlorn cabaletta whilst Furlanetto patters away in the background. Later, in his final duet with Focile, which they both deliver piano, he brings out all the colouring and richness off texture and tone with which this music abounds.


It is the interaction of the characters which is one of this opera’s great strengths. That is reflected in the power of this production. The whole is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts. No matter who is singing with whom, there are no weak links.


Furlanetto and Gallo, with similar tessituras, complement each other delightfully and with acting skills that make the most of the stage directions. Without wishing to spoil the many such moments I will mention one: the sudden production of a pair of pistols by Furlanetto and the use made of them in their duet when about to go into the garden to confront the lovers. Very wittily done.


Similarly when Focile and Gallo set up the meeting with Furlanetto, their high spirits concluding Act I in Vado, corro epitomises this DVD. Act II is, of course, Donizetti’s wickedly comic tour de force building to the remarkable climax. It is justifiably stunning in the production with the quartet extracting every ounce (or gramme) of texture from Donizetti’s great writing.


The role of the notary, sung by Claudio Giombi is almost perfunctory but necessary to the plot. His repeated repetition during the ‘wedding’ vows is well delivered as is his small bombshell that a second witness is required which sets up the quartet. Similarly the chorus are on good vocal form and given more stage work in this production then others I have seen. Whilst their diction is not the clearest, the note hitting and dynamics leave nothing to be desired.


Before heaping more praise on the production, I would add a caveat. The set uses a clever folding study for the opening scene – but why do we have to view the sky above it. Kenneth Chalmers in the essay in the accompanying small booklet explains “The opera is a piece of interiors, but those enclosed spaces are dominated by the vastness of the changing sky, out of which the characters emerge …” Maybe: but that is too airy fairy for me. So in the next revival, just darken it please for Don Pasquale’s room so that the bright sky does not distract when the camera gives us one of the not too frequent views of the whole stage.


The ‘no expense spared’ costumes and the lighting are excellent as is the camera-work and video presentation. There are many joyful theatrical touches: direction at its best, none of which will I describe here to avoid detracting from their freshness when you see them for yourself.


Robert McKechnie




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