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Opera Review

'Don Pasquale' in a New Production at the Met
by Otto Schenk

Published: April 3, 2006

Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecien in "Don Pasquale."

Readers' Opinions

 

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 foyer.

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, manliness.

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 farce.

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.

Correction: April 4, 2006 A picture caption in The Arts yesterday with the continuation of a review of "Don Pasquale," at the Metropolitan Opera, misidentified the singer shown with Anna Netrebko. He was Simone Alaimo. (Mariusz Kwiecien was shown with her on the first page of the Arts section.)

 

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MUSIC REVIEW
Vamping taints an all-too-merry widow

BY MARION LIGNANA ROSENBERG
Special to Newsday

April 4, 2006

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.

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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.