As I was out of the country when Don Pasquale was broadcast live I had to settle for the rerun on December 1. This opera is a gem. What would any opera lover give for a composer who could turn out the wealth of great tunes that fill this work? It was one of the last from the master from Bergamo before his mind was destroyed by the spirochete. Among great composers Donizetti seems to always get the short straw. Rossini before and Verdi after seem to camouflage his greatness. His bicentennial year (1997) passed almost unnoticed as it was also Schubert’s 200th  birthday.

Mariusz Kwiecien and John Del Carlo

This production, directed by Otto Schenk, first appeared at the Met in 2006. Anna Netrebko (Norina) and Mariusz Kwiecien (Dr Malatesta) appeared in it as they do in the current run. John Del Carlo sang the title role (he sang one performance in ’06). Matthew Polenzani was Ernesto. A little bit of trivia – Anthony Laciura performed the comprimario role of the notary four years ago. Today he’s playing a German butler in the service of the 1920 boss of Atlantic City on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. The current notary was Bernard Fitch.

Don Pasquale is an opera that doesn’t make great vocal demands on any of the four principals which paradoxically makes good singing even more important because there’s no extraordinary technical challenge to hide behind. All four were quite good. Del Carlo has the right feel for opera buffa. My only quibble about his performance was something that no one can do anything about. He’s about 10 yards taller and 100 pounds heavier than anyone else on stage. It’s hard to play a vulnerable pathetic 70 year old man when you look like you could eat the entire cast for lunch. Matthew Polenzani has a pleasant lyric voice. He won’t make you forget Juan Diego Flórez who sang Ernesto four years ago. Polenzani’s most appealing vocal attribute is the ability to sing softly with full vocal support. This was most telling in his 3rd act cavatina (Com’e gentil). Mariusz Kwiecien has a pleasant light lyric baritone. He and Del Carlo had a lot of fun with the glorious patter duet – ‘Cheti, cheti, immantinente’. I don’t think they took it as fast as Mariano Stabile and Martin Lawrence did in 1947 (Don Pasquale – Cheti, Cheti, Immantinente), but they were fast enough. They reprised the duet’s conclusion in front of the curtain.

This leaves the Diva. Vocally she was in good shape though she couldn’t quite manage a trill in ‘So anch’io la virtù’ in the 1st act. Her voice has deepened and is richer than formally. As I’ve mentioned before she’s ready for heavier roles. She has an affinity for comedy. She was jumping all over the place, throwing everything all over the stage, and in general trying to steal every scene she was in. Everybody seemed happy with her athletic portrayal though it was a little too muscular for me. There’s more of Netrebko than there was in 2006. She still has not lost all the weight she gained during her recent pregnancy. This doesn’t show much in the auditorium. But  Gary Halvorson’s close ups showed the excess poundage; it’s not a big deal – yet.

James Levine has never conducted this opera before this season. He was in fine form. The overture was so vigorously played that I expected La Forza Del Destino to follow. The maestro’s physical frailty has not affected his conducting. He brought all the panache Donizetti’s lyric jewel requires.

The slap: When Norina slaps Don Pasquale in the first scene of the 3rd act  something unique in comic opera occurs. Don Pasquale’s inner spirit collapses. The emotional tone changes to deep pathos. The music captures this awful event with touching directness. Levine managed the shift brilliantly as did Del Carlo and Netrebko. She looked stricken at what she had done conveying to the viewer that she realized that she had gone too far.

Despite excellent singing, orchestral playing, and effective staging the production is a mess. This is entirely the fault of Rolf Langenfass’s sets. He has reconstructed downtown Rome. His sets are so big that it takes hours (it seemed like hours) to move them on and off stage. Don Pasquale is a short opera. When I first saw it at the Met in 1955 the company didn’t think it long enough for a full evening, so they preceded it with a ballet – Soirée choreographed by Zachary Solov. The gargantuan sets lengthened the performance time to more than three and a half hours even though there was only one intermission. This is Italian comic opera not Wagner. Pasquale doesn’t need a lot of sets. Less would definitely have been more.

The most expensive ticket in 1955 was $8. Today you can pay $350 for a one act opera (eg, Salome). The Dow Jones Industrial Average then was about 450; today it’s a little more than 11,000. Thus the Met’s ticket prices have beaten the stock market by about a factor of 2. The long scene changes showed a lot of stage hands standing around doing nothing. The Met has about 60 unions. No wonder they mortgaged their Chagall murals. They charge more for less and nobody works very hard.

Any way, Don Pasquale is a great little opera and sets aside it got a fine performance by the Met.