The plot of Don Pasquale
is as old as the hills – or at least as old as the ancient Roman comedies where a foolish old man allows himself to be bamboozled into an unsuitable marriage with a girl much younger than himself, and loses financially to boot. It was not a pleasant plot two thousand years ago, and it hasn’t got much better with age. The sight of an old man - it is always an old man, not an old woman - being comprehensively swindled out of his money, and being made to suffer emotionally at the same time, really should have no place in modern times when improved medical standards are enabling citizens of senior years to enjoy themselves every bit as much as those in the first flush of youth. Indeed, it is notable that works employing this antique plot have been considerably less thick on the ground since 1900 than in the preceding period; Stefan Zweig wrote a version of Ben Jonson’s Volpone
for Richard Strauss under the title of Die schweigsame Frau
, although it has only ever maintained a place on the fringes of the repertory. Even then Zweig toned down the element of cruelty by making Morosus a sympathetic character who engages the compassion of the audience.
However a critic who uses modern concepts of ‘political correctness’ to judge the merits of a work of art from earlier periods runs the severe risk of making himself look utterly ridiculous. I recall with some amusement — and delight — a review by Rodney Milnes in Opera
magazine many years ago, where he described the heroine of Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea
as a “trollop” who has “whored her way” to the pinnacle of power. This provoked a response from a correspondent who coined the inimitable put-down: “Pass me my sprigged muslin gown, dear, Mr Milnes is coming to tea.” Donizetti, well aware of the dangers of the plots derived from the old commedia dell’arte
tradition at the end of his composing career — and himself under the shadow of mortality — took considerable care to make sure that the characters enlisted the sympathy and understanding of the audience. Berlioz, who had expressed pleasure over some passages in Lucia di Lammermoor
, unfortunately failed to review the Paris première in January 1843 since he was travelling in Germany at the time. His views, as someone who all too easily formed romantic attachments to younger women, might have been interesting.
In a useful and perceptive director’s note in the booklet with this release, Mariame Clément makes it clear that she is well aware of the dangers inherent in presenting Don Pasquale
to a modern public. She wisely rejects the notion of updating the plot to a modern period — which would have underlined its cruelty — but seeks instead to “bring the characters to life and make the situations read
without the obvious help of modernisation.” Which makes it all the more surprising that this staging of the opera undermines Donizetti’s treatment of the leading character as a figure who engages the audience in his delusions and really enjoys them. In this production he is being taken for a ride good and proper, since his supposed ‘friend’ the scheming doctor Malatesta actually appears to have designs on his bride and is after his money as well. The characterisation of Pasquale, curmudgeonly in the extreme, gives the viewer the decided impression that it serves him right.
Nonetheless there is plenty to enjoy in this production as well, with lots of original visual gags that delight the audience and work well in their context without at any time going too far. The performance is really something to cherish. The singers are all well able to cope with Donizetti’s often rowdy orchestration, ringing out loud and clear and managing their florid divisions without aspiration and plenty of fizz. With the exception of Alessandro Corbelli in the title role, they are all young and full of bounce as well as dramatic involvement. Alek Shrader as Ernesto is a real find: much more than the usual Rossinian tenorino
, he displays a fine lyric voice with plenty of power ... and a good pair of legs as well. Danielle de Niese is a more familiar singer, and she also has plenty of grit and spunk as the demure little convent girl who suddenly develops into a monster to torment Pasquale. Nikolay Borchev is a sardonic Malatesta, whose perpetual sneer could have become a mannerism but which is enlightened every so often with a conspiratorial grin. James Platt is a sonorous and sometimes bemused Notary, and Anna-Marie Sullivan makes much of little as the servant who carries a secret torch for her master. Corbelli generally makes a thoroughly believable character out of Pasquale, although given his surliness earlier on his sudden conversion at the end is less convincing than usual.
The treatment of the chorus, at first serried in ranks on the stage, rather cuts across the dramatic verisimilitude of the production. That said, they sing superbly, with dramatic contrasts and clear diction that give their limited role its full measure. Enrique Mazzola is a magnificent conductor, who gets a full-blooded response for the orchestra which belies the need for period instruments in scores of this period. There is plenty of subtlety too. The booklet informs us that the performance employs a “revised edition by Piero Rattalino” but it appears from the conductor’s comments in one of the extras that this largely consists of the addition of five bars to Norina’s cavatina which are found in Donizetti’s manuscript but not in printed scores.
The booklet is enhanced by an essay by Cori Ellison which points out the subversive use which Donizetti makes of waltz rhythms in the score, and draws parallels with Verdi’s similarly valedictory Falstaff.
These notes also come with French and German translations; the subtitles add Korean to the available texts. Mariame Clément describes the sets by Julia Hansen as “playful (and not always compeletely realistic)” but there are no jarring elements, and they serve their purpose well as they revolve around the stage, sometimes to deliberately comic effect.
The extras with the recording involve a degree of duplication, in that a good fifty per cent of the content of the second documentary has already been seen and heard in the first. They demonstrate that producer and cast have recognised the cruelty inherent in the plot and have been concerned to make the whole opera dramatically credible – a highly praiseworthy aim in these days when so many productions seem to have entirely the opposite intention. The back of the box quotes a review from the Financial Times
describing the staging as “a Glyndebourne classic”. It is most certainly that, in every sense.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Previous review (DVD): Robert