Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecien in "Don Pasquale."
Savvy directors and actors understand that the only way
to make a rich comedy truly funny is to take it seriously.
For a brilliant demonstration of this principle in action,
go to the Metropolitan
Opera for the director Otto Schenk's wonderful new
production of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale," which opened
on Friday night.
Back home in Vienna, Mr. Schenk, a veteran Austrian director,
is also a celebrated actor with an acclaimed knack for
comedy. A humane yet tough comic sensibility infuses this
insightful production of Donizetti's lyrical late comic
opera. The Met has given Mr. Schenk a marvelous cast, especially
the charismatic soprano Anna Netrebko in a portrayal of
Norina that dazzled Friday night's audience. The look of
the production, with sets and costumes by Rolf Langenfass,
may be traditional. But by tapping into the emotions that
run just below the surface of this familiar story about
a crusty and miserly old bachelor - jealousy, desire, resentment,
fear of death - Mr. Schenk prods us to see this work in
a provocatively new way.
It is clear when the curtain goes up that Don Pasquale
is facing a late-life crisis. His Roman villa has fallen
into sad disrepair. A once-grand staircase winds through
dingy walls; a column supporting the whole house is propped
up by a wood beam. Don Pasquale, the appealing Italian
bass Simone Alaimo, has gone to pot, a tubby and disheveled
old man. Too apathetic to sleep in an upstairs room, Pasquale
has set up a lonely bed with ragged curtains in the downstairs
Pasquale is distressed by his dashing and shiftless young
nephew, Ernesto (the tenor Juan Diego Flórez) , who lives
with him. He has tried to persuade Ernesto to marry a moneyed
woman he chose for him, but the headstrong youth has fallen
in love with a poor and lovely young widow, Norina. So
Pasquale decides that he will take his own wife, produce
his own heir and cut Ernesto out.
Though Mr. Alaimo may not have a glamorous voice, he is
fine singer, a subtle actor and a master of bel canto style.
In a pivotal moment, Pasquale tells the crushed Ernesto
that their mutual friend, Dr. Malatesta, has arranged his
own marriage to Malatesta's sister, the virginal and modest
Sofronia. Gloating, this Pasquale delivers the news with
nasty vehemence, pumped up with a newfound, however ridiculous,
Actually, Dr. Malatesta is on Ernesto's side, and Sofronia
is none other than Norina, in on a scheme to teach Pasquale
a lesson. In Mr. Schenk's staging Norina lives in a tiny
rooftop garret with a large sunny terrace. When we meet
her, the lovely Ms. Netrebko is reclining in a lounge chair
reading aloud from a sappy romantic novel, using one foot
to scratch an itch on the other, her shapely white legs
catching the sunlight
Ms. Netrebko tosses the book aside and breaks into Norina's
sprightly aria about love, saying, basically, "I know all
about how women use their wiles, and it's nothing like
what's in this silly book." The aria often comes off as
coquettish and cute. Not here. Ms. Netrebko, her rich voice
filling the auditorium, her radiant top notes stopping
your breath, struts about her terrace, even turning a somersault
on the lounge chair, looking like someone you don't want
to cross. There was so much intensity in her singing you
would have thought she was performing Lucia's "Mad Scene." The
house, understandably, went wild.
Yet after "Sofronia" marries Pasquale (in a fake ceremony),
this obliging wife turns into a shrewish and bossy spendthrift.
At one point, when Pasquale tries to stand up to her, she
slaps him - hard. As Mr. Alaimo broke into Donizetti's
despairing music, "E finita Don Pasquale," a broken man,
Ms. Netrebko seemed genuinely pained, as if maybe the joke
was going too far. It was a poignant moment in this supposed
Dr. Malatesta is the instigator of the scheme, and the
whole opera. The dynamic young Polish baritone Mariusz
Kwiecien was mesmerizing in the role, his robust voice
matched by his robust physique. There were sparks of sexual
chemistry between his character and Ms. Netrebko's, which
lent another intriguing element to the story. James
Levine had been scheduled to conduct this production.
In his place Maurizio Benini gave a lively and stylish
account of the score.
Though Mr. Flórez looked adorable as Ernesto, he sounded
vocally strained during the first two acts. Before Act
III Joseph Volpe, general manager of the Met, came on stage
to announce that Mr. Flórez had suffered an "allergic attack" and
would be replaced by Barry Banks for the final act. This
English tenor brought a clarion voice to his ardent singing
of Ernesto's famous serenade and won a grateful ovation
from the audience, too happy with the whole show to mind
Mr. Flórez's departure.
The next performance of "Don Pasquale" is tonight
at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center; (212)
362-6000. The production runs through April 28.
It all looked so promising on paper: Four winning
principals in Donizetti's "Don Pasquale," the wise and urbane
1843 masterpiece last heard at the Metropolitan Opera more
than a quarter-century ago.
Alas, that the task of staging "Don Pasquale" was entrusted
to Otto Schenk. A house regular since 1968, Schenk is best
known locally for his Met production of "The Ring of the Nibelungen," which
embalms Wagner's would-be revolutionary saga in caveman kitsch.
For "Don Pasquale," an end-of-an-era work that gently parodies
the musical and dramatic stuff of earlier comic operas, Schenk
served up a mishmash of slapstick cliches: overblown hand
gestures, rickety furniture that gives way when sat upon,
a chorus of servants who twitch and shimmy as if at a hoedown.
Schenk also allowed his leading lady to run amok. Anna Netrebko's
incessant mugging ensured that she was the center of attention
but eclipsed the character of Donizetti's Norina, a respectable
young widow who pretends to be a shrewish tramp during her
sham marriage to the old bachelor Don Pasquale. Netrebko played
Norina as a harpy from first scene to last, preening and vamping
like a frenzied slattern.
Netrebko also indulged in idiocy such as waves to the house
while supposedly in character. It was the most self-serving
performance this writer has ever witnessed; nonetheless the
audience ate up every last bit of it. The soprano was in lustrous
but thick voice, with her pitch tending to sag, her vowels
sometimes lugubrious, and her handling of musical intricacies
less than fastidious.
With an unlovable Norina, the motivations of Dr. Malatesta,
her friend and confidant, and Ernesto, her forlorn fiance,
remained opaque. As Malatesta, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien was
a sly presence, his tone perhaps a touch too muscular than
is ideal for the role, but glamorous and healthy.
Tenor Juan Diego Flórez withdrew before the final act, citing
an allergy attack. While his voice was under obvious pressure
at the top of its range, he still turned in the evening's finest
singing: an inward, velvety "Sogno soave e casto" and a "Cerchero
lontana terra," graced by verbal sensitivity and irresistible
warmth. To Barry Banks fell the thankless task of performing
Ernesto's most difficult music on short notice, and he acquitted
himself splendidly, with gorgeously tapered phrases in the
serenade and a lovely lilt to "Tornami a dir che m'ami."
As Don Pasquale, Simone Alaimo was in rich voice, and his pellucid
enunciation was a joy to hear, but his character's emotional
arc - the heartbreak of a doddering old fool who is the victim
of a too-cruel joke - was obscured by the relentless shtick
going on around him.
Maurizio Benini led a deliciously frothy account of the overture
but deferred too often to his singers, and Rolf Langenfass
designed the handsome sets and costumes.
DON PASQUALE. Music by Gaetano Donizetti, libretto by Donizetti
and Giovanni Ruffini. The Metropolitan Opera, Maurizio Benini
conducting. Through April 28 at Lincoln Center. For details,
visit www.metopera.org or call 212-362-6000. Seen Friday.