Cher Public

Smiles on a summer night

Apparently, we learn very little in life; the follies we pursue with haste in youth are answered by the follies we commit in age with great deliberation. Such is the atmosphere of Gaetano Donizetti’s great opera buffa, Don Pasquale. Composed in 1842-3 for the Paris Théâtre-Italien, it was intended for the star talents of Luigi Lablache, Antonio Tamburini, Giovanni Mario, and Giulia Grisi, at least two of whom might be said to have had a shaping impact on the character of Italian bel canto–Tamburini created more than a dozen important works by Donizetti, Bellini, and Mercadante, and Grisi was Bellini’s first Adalgisa in Norma.  

It was among the last of Donizetti’s completed works for the stage, and represents his skills in their full flower, with Donizetti’s usual and poignant mixture of almost slapdash haste and thoughtful melodic genius: Donizetti liked to claim that he had completed the work in eleven days, but in fact the score was the result of careful composition and revision stretching over more than three months, nothing like the prolonged gestations of Berlioz or Wagner, but suggestive of unusual deliberation on Donizetti’s part.

In this, it might be said, Donizetti found one of the best possible outlets for his remarkable facility, as he had in La Fille du Régiment and La Favorite. Generally indifferent to the finer points of his libretto, yet hungry for the situations and confrontations that fired his genius, Donizetti looked to a libretto already used by Stefano Pavesi, and asked Giovanni Ruffini to hammer it into shape.

The spectre that haunts Pasquale is that of the commedia dell’arte: Pasquale himself is a type of the old fool Pantalone, and his new name, from “Pasquin,” the much-abused fragmentary statue to which satirical verse used to be nailed, suggests that he is the deserving target of much abuse. His nephew Ernesto is the innocent Pierrot; Ernesto’s beloved Norina is the mercurial Columbine; and their ally Dr. Malatesta is the trickster Scapino, and his new name (“Headache”) suggests how little use his medicines are. The resulting libretto is a rather dismal reflection on the prospects of marriage, and it is interesting to reflect how often Donizetti was attracted to the notion of a woman stuck in a wretched relationship–Maria di Rohan; Favorite; Poliuto; Parisina.

Really, only a knife and a chemical imbalance separate the sprightly Norina from Lucia. The musical example–and challenge–of Mozart and Rossini are prominent here, and it is difficult to imagine Norina without the precedent of Rossini’s Rosina before her, or the patter of Malatesta and Pasquale’s “Aspetta, aspetta” without the precedent of Rossini’s trademark fireworks; yet the tone and example for Donizetti’s work here are more clearly found in the intermezzi of two generations back–Paisiello’s Serva Padrona and Cimarosa’s Matrimonio Segreto, with their small, controlled cast, suggested unit sets, and domestic scale. It is hard not to think, too, of many of the semiseria operas of the Baroque, with their succession of well-shaped arias and duets.

This summer’s production of the work by Boston Midsummer Opera was beautifully sung and played, and rather minimally presented. Leslie Ann Bradley was a remarkable Norina, lively and amusing; the slightest suggestion of a covered tone in the middle voice gave way quickly to a fine and flexible instrument, that became more beautiful and more individual as she went into her uppermost register.

David Kravitz as Malatesta was a magnetic stage presence, and competent for every challenge of Donizetti’s music; his performance was as much a credit to the opera this year as it was last year in BMO’s Italiana in Algieri. As Pasquale, Ricardo Lugo offered a powerful and convincing bass, although a certain woolliness of tone at times blurred his arpeggio work, while Alex Richardson as Ernesto exhibited both a sweetness of tone and fine squillo–a crucial talent for a bel canto tenor.

The costumes were an odd mixture of quasi-18th century and quasi-1950s styles. One wonders, looking at surviving images from the 1843 production, why they bothered; Pasquale himself dressed in a fool’s recollection of the fashions of his youth, decades before, and the other principals wore contemporary styles; nothing would have been lost by using carefully tailored 2010s-contemporary styles for this production.

Scenic designer Stephen Dobay‘s dull set for the first two acts blossomed imaginatively in the third, with tiers of opened parasols wittily representing the gardens around Pasquale’s house. As for the management of the stage action–Austin Pendleton, like many directors accustomed to plays rather than opera, seemed intimidated by the work, and fell back repeatedly on the expedient of parking the singers center stage and allowing them to sing squarely to the audience. Surely 2012–and Donizetti’s comic masterpiece–deserve more movement, variety, and imagination than this.

Richardson was especially ill-served here: the tenor role is the emotional heart of Donizetti’s comedies, as the soprano is the emotional heart of his tragedies, and to immobilize him, once again, downstage center, for “Cercherò lontana terra”; and then to bury him in darkness for “Com’è gentil,” is to miss something important about Donizetti. Special note should be made of Susan Davenny Wyner’s orchestra, which delivered a remarkably beatiful, clean, and sparkling sound throughout.

Although, overall, this production lacked the sparkle of last year’s Italiana in Algieri, that is only to be expected from the smaller scale of the opera itself, and perhaps the continuing impact of the recession on American arts organizations; Don Pasquale offered a fine night of comic opera with some of the field’s best younger singers.

Photo: Christopher McKenzie.

  • Sempre liberal

    Did I miss Betsy’s weekly opera postings this week? I am lost without her…

    • Camille

      As am I.

      “Ah! perduta io son….”

      Thank you, Miss Shirl. Now I feel a little better.

      • Just lovely. Here’s something a bit more desperate.

        • Camille

          Is this the one from the Concertgebouw?

          God bless her, she is still with us. It will be a black day of despair when she leaves us mortals. Forever in her debt.

          • It’s from Caracas, 1972 (with Richard Tucker).

          • Camille

            It sounded a little bit extra sobby so I was not sure. My Amsterdam recording of Manon Lescaut was worn to ribbons. Suppose I could have worn them in my hair, come to think of it. Chapeau à la mode de Manon.

          • actfive

            No one, NO ONE, sings death/suffering as realistically as Olivero.

    • Haimes

      Metapinder, We were at the performance of Don Pasquale on Saturday evening and found it to be tepid, somewhat over-acted to the point of slapstick. Leslie Ann Bradley sang fairly well, but was quite stiff. The orchestra while well intentioned was simply too small to do the performance justice.

      The opera was well attended, but the director kept walking up and down the aisle during the performance. When the conductor stepped on stage, she was wearing a rather funny set of sneakers which clearly stood out. Overall the performance was simply lackluster. I know it is tough not to compare, but having seen both of Netrebko’s performance at the MET, one realizes the innate charm and natural acting ability of Mariusz Kweicen and Netrebko. While I find JDF and Polenzani somewhat bland actors they are nevertheless serviceable.

      On Sunday the Boston Opera Collaborative put on a free production of Orpheus and the Underworld at Boston’s Strand Theater that was simply full of charm. The audience was engaged throughout. This performance had a larger orchestra and really rolse to the occasion.

      It should be noted that both operas were sung in English. While we were not used to this, it came off well in both, but more so in Orpheus.

  • Camille

    “Really, only a knife and a chemical imbalance separate the sprightly Norina from Lucia.”

    True dat. Well put. As well, thank you for noting the commedia dell’arte provenances; I had not thought that one through.

    As a great admirer of this rather late flower of Donizetti’s genius, there can never be one too many of this sparkling and effervescent romp. Veuve Clicquot brut in an opera.

  • rysanekfreak

    I was hoping that in honor (honour, of course!) of the London Olympics, Betsy would hand out gold medals to the various performances available today.

    I would give the gold medal for Deepest Hole Dug to Unearth the Rarest Opera to the folks at Wildbad for that truly rare Mercadante I Briganti (based on the same source as Verdi’s I Masnadieri).

    I’m sure there are other medals today: a few gold, some silver, some bronze, and lots of plastic.

    • Camille

      Doubtless, there are a couple leaden clunkers as well.

  • aulus agerius

    For months I’ve been trying to finish the video of the Met HD with Netrebko, Polenzani, Kwiecien, & del Carlo, a scarey looking Levine leering from the pit. I try to forget how non-plussed I’ve been and come back to it afresh but am defeated once again. The production and acting and singing are so overdone as to crush this delicate piece. I saw this one in the house with Neb and JDF and I don’t remember having this impression from Family Circle. Perhaps it’s the relentless intimacy of the camera. Even MK turns me off with his fakey enthusiasm. Polenzani is just boring, del Carlo one-dimensional and Nebs vulgar.

  • manou

    Ok -- this is off topic (well -- I am smiling and it is a summer’s night). Just back from the Orange Turandot, where Alagna started off below par, and there was an announcement before the second half to say that he was unwell but had chosen to go on not to disappoint the public and because of his “well known professionalism”. He could not manage the third “vincero” at all, but got an ovation anyway (Orange is his very own fiefdom). He soldiered on, but was really not able to do much. This raises the point about cancellations -- is it better to just call off a performance or try to go on willy nilly? Lindstrom was great, and the production very good indeed, and I may write more later in the proper thread if anybody is interested. Just a quick post performance note.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      Maybe they were making a video? Is this Alagna’s first Calaf? When you say he could not manage his final “vincero”, what did he do? Sing something lower and in a solid fashion or just sto singing earlier.

    • Camille

      I am very happy, indeed, to hear that Miss Lindstrom did so well. She really has a lot more of that role in her voice than most others do and hoping she will return to the Met.
      About Alagna, whether it is better to go on—--that is a very tough call. Sometimes a singer will warm up and overcome his difficulty and then so many times I have heard the voice gradually fade out. I wish, however, he would preserve the lyrical quality of his voice and not pursue this type of role which calls for bald verismo bawling. Too taxing.

      Maybe one could blame it all on the Mistral????

      • MontyNostry

        Should Bobbie be singing Calaf at all?

        • Camille

          Not in my opera house, NON.

          • MontyNostry

            It’s only a matter of time before his Otellino.

          • oedipe

            LOL, Monty!

            On the other hand, he is not the first lyric tenor to attempt Calaf, is he.

          • Cocky Kurwenal

            Otello is in his diary, with Chung.

          • Feldmarschallin

            He is also singing 6 performances of La Juive at BSO in 2016

    • I am very curious to hear your impression of Maria Luigia Borsi…..

      • manou

        Borsi was quite lovely, and sang such delicate pianissimi that I wondered whether she could be heard much higher up, but somebody in the 23rd row said she was perfectlty audible (and heartbreaking). She had a triumph (and kissed the ground!). I seem to remember she was highly appreciated here at the Wigmore Hall recently.

        On reflection, I think I was happier to see Alagna even in this diminished vocal estate rather than a note perfect substitute (I only hope he did not damage his voice as the Tuesday performance will be broadcast live, both on French TV and on France Musique, so probably accessible everywhere). The Vincero autopsy is that he sang the first one, croaked in the second one and only sang the first syllable of the last one, bowing his head down for the last two.

        Plasson was in exuberant form, hugged everyone at the end, and got the orchestra to play the last (Alfano?) chorus of Nessun Dorma and all 8000 spectators joined in.

        • A. Poggia Turra

          Will the Tuesday performance be available on Pluzz?

          • manou

            I really have no idea APT, but oedipe might know. Not even sure there will be a performance…

          • redbear

            All French public TV programming is available on Pluzz. Yesterday, I watched there Roberto in a little of Boheme from Orange from a few years ago which was shown after-midnight on France 2. Somebody told me Pluzz restricted for the US but often some unruly type will post the opera on YouTube. I watched the first Orange thing, Tosca, there.

        • MontyNostry

          manou -- I saw Borsi at the Wigmore and thought she was pretty good, but not outstanding.There, I thought there was two much vibrato and not enough core to the tone, but she was quite stylish. I think that, of today’s Italian sopranos of that type, Serena Farnocchia has a better voice.

    • Buster

      Not sure Manou. What I really hate is an indisposed singer going on, acting the part, while someone else sings it from the side of the stage. I find that too distracting to watch/listen to, and always try to get out at the first possible moment. I very much prefer a singer who struggles a little over that. But a well prepared understudy, of course, is my first choice.

      Were you, by any chance, at the recent Schwanewilms Four Last songs? Apparently, she was announced as indisposed, went on, gave a good demonstration she was indeed just that, and got wildly applauded in the end nevertheless. I would have felt cheated just a little bit in that case.

      • manou

        Hello Buster -- did not see Schwanewilms but read about it. It seems it really was a debacle, and most people felt like you that she should have cancelled. I think there might be Somme comments on Intermezzo -- will look them up for you.

        On the other hand, singers are reviled for cancelling, so I guess it is a lose/lose situation…

        • manou

          …oh, and I detest miming from the stage. That must be absolutely the wrong solution!

        • Buster

          Thanks Manou -- found the Intermezzo comments!

          • Feldmarschallin

            under what article are the Schwanewilms comments Buster?

          • Buster
          • spiderman

            Well, I have seen Schwanewilms just 4 weeks ago as Chrysothemis in Vienna and she was in perfectly well condition.
            Schwanewilms’ singing is always somehow compromised and i belive that under not ideal conditions things like in “beim schlafengehen” can easily happen to her.

          • manou

            This is the Seckerson review:


          • Feldmarschallin

            thanks for the link.

        • Enzo Bordello

          I saw Schwanewilms as Chrystothemis in June at the Wiener Staatsoper. Nothing horrible but her singing was very cautious and tentative and she got off the high notes very quickly. None of these are qualities I want in a Chrysothemis. I think she is forcing her voice too much in repertoire like this and it’s starting to show. She was a lovely Contessa Almaviva here in Chicago until she ran completely out of steam in the final phrases of “Dove sono.” She ended up canceling most of the run. Her earlier Marschallin at LOC was much better.

          • luvtennis

            Pretty scary comments regarding Schwanewilms. The description given of her performance in the Seckerson review would pretty aptly describe the recording that I have -- except the part about the voicelessness. But it does seem to me that her technique is very unusual. It’s like the voice is composed of about 5 very different parts. In conversational music or music that does not require long phrases across wide intervals she can mask the lack of consistency in the voice -- and the fact that she has a very uneven breathing technique.

            Interesting too that folks differ so much in their perceptions of her singing. I wonder if it has to due with whether one relates to operatic performance primarily through the text or through the music. Whether singing is merely a means to an end, or an end in and of itself. If the former, then I can see one not even noticing the peculiarities (deficiencies?) in the singing of AS. If the latter, then the idiosyncracies of her vocal production might be too distracting for consistent enjoyment, even despite her obvious commitment as a operatic performer and communicator.

            In any event, hope the difficulties she seems to have been having in the last 18 months are simply due to minor, passing illnesses and not a sign of longterm breakdown in the technique.

    • oedipe

      On the subject of canceling:

      Let’s call this: “A Tale of Two Laryngeal Infections”, or “Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t”.

      I didn’t attend the Orange Turandot on Saturday, but for the past few days the French blogosphere has been buzzing with rumors and innuendos (in crescendos and decrescendos). Apparently, some days ago Alagna came down with a laryngeal mycosis and has been on antibiotics ever since. He missed a few rehearsals in Orange and it was rumored he would skip the GR, but he showed up and, uncharacteristically for him, marked almost the whole time.

      Laryngeal infections have, it seems, been common lately among singers and have led to prominent cancellations (e.g. Radvanovsky, Kaufmann). When Kaufmann cancelled his much anticipated and advertised Enée role assumption at the ROH, there were people who cried murder, but many others -especially his unconditional fans, some of whom had made elaborate plans spend small fortunes in order to come see him live- were very accommodating of the singer’s putting his own health above the interest of his fans.

      Alagna has said in past interviews that he hates to cancel because he feels a great deal of responsibility towards his audience, some of whom organize their lives and spend a lot of money to follow him around the world. Besides, the stakes at the Chorégies are very high: the 2 scheduled performances sell about 16000 high-priced tickets (to which one must add the cost of the local accommodations), and for many people Alagna is the main attraction. The second scheduled performance of this Turandot will be broadcast live on national television and hundreds of thousands of people will likely watch it; the TV channel (FR3) is organizing a whole evening centered around Alagna. Not to mention the fact that Calaf is a role assumption he seemed excited about and which he is unlikely to repeat elsewhere.

      So, what’s a person to do? As usual, Alagna chose to brave his medical condition…with, it seems, disastrous results. Not only that, but he stayed on after the performance till 2:00am in order to sign fans’ programs and other memorabilia. And now, the blogosphere is full of angry comments, reprimands, and speculation about his malefic hidden motives for NOT canceling. Thus, the “true” reason must be either that he can’t stand having anyone else sing in his place, or that he is trying to milk people’s sympathy. Or else, he is trying to hide something, because a singer cannot POSSIBLY sing with a laryngeal infection. And how does he DARE attempt to sing under such circumstances, he should have let the cover sing (never mind that the cover, whose name I don’t recall now, is apparently not Chorégies material, let alone prime-time television material).

      I am sure that between now and the scheduled TV broadcast on Tuesday many of the organizers involved will suffer from insomnia. No idea what will happen on Tueday, but I confess this is making me (even) bitter(er) about opera audiences. My advice to Bobby would be: Pretty please, Mr. Alagna, do like the others do, DO protect your voice above all else, cancel Tuesday’s performance, f**k the public!

      • manou

        I certainly hope laryngeal infections are not too…infectious, as I have to report
        much kissing and general groping and mauling between Roberto and Lise Lindstrom.

        The production is superb, with only a couple of errors of taste. There is a wonderful coup de theatre when Alagna first kisses Lindstrom who up until then is dressed entirely in severe black: as if by magic, her black garment slides off and she is all in white satin.

        Marco Spotti is a sterling Timur and Chris Merritt is a tremulously imperial Altoum.

    • Nerva Nelli

      You wait and see: most of the French musical press will hail this as a great Alagna triumph.

      • Camille

        I was thinking of you today whilst viewing Liam Bonner in his tri-colour Speedos.

        You were right.

        Yours devotedly,

        • Nerva Nelli


          Let’s wait and see what Tony T salivates…

      • oedipe


        You seem unfamiliar with the subtleties of the effete elite that runs the French musical press: it is NOT de bon ton to hail anything Alagna does. He is too popular for les précieux.

        • redbear

          On his Facebook page he stated that he would have liked to quit after the second act but there was no replacement.

          “J’espère pouvoir récupérer pour la dernière représentation….
          Je vous embrasse,

        • Nerva Nelli

          Oedipe, I often see OPERA MAGAZINE out of Paris and they have never, ever given Alagna a bad review, nor Dessay nor Koch either, even for performances I have seen that were deserving of them. And by their reckoning Ludovic Tezier (indeed a good singer) is “the best Verdi baritone in the world”. Laurent Naouri is written up as if he has a great instrument. Etc Etc.

          • Cocky Kurwenal

            Does anybody get it right, Nerva?

          • Nerva Nelli

            Well, *JJ*, of course!

            I think a lot of the current critics in OPERA (London) and OPERNWELT (Berlin) get it right. One or two of the old guard at the former retain the Rosenthal world-view (“Where was our own Constance Shacklock, a much cleaner vocalist than this Moedl person?”) but fortunately not many.

            OPERA NEWS has several people whose judgments I trust in performance reviews, too.

          • oedipe

            I believe you don’t see my point, Nerva.

            I am sure EACH country has (paper and electronic) publications with a tendency to be partial to national talent. For instance, the extent of coverage given to American singers in Opera News (which you praised above) is much larger than in European music publications. Similarly, German publications give a lot of consideration to German singers, etc. It’s a common occurrence and I can understand it, as long as I am not told that the French are biased, whereas the Americans are objective!

            I have not seen the review where Tézier is called “the best Verdi baritone in the world”. (Do you have the reference?) But I have seen articles in various publications that criticize him for his stiffness and aloofness. As for Dessay, there is a seemingly endless series of published reviews that are very critical of her.

            But I was hinting at something different. When it comes to French opinions about French singers, there are nuances that you don’t seem to see. You don’t seem to grasp the difference in the French psyche between, say, Koch, Degout, Gens on the one hand, and Alagna on the other hand. For the French intelligentsia, whereas Koch is classy, tasteful, and wise, Alagna is the “black sheep” that the elite loves to criticize for everything, from choice of rep, to lifestyle, to the things he says. It’s a peculiar love/hate relationship… As an example, the magazine Diapason published a cover article on Alagna for the first time last year, when he was 48! The public at large loves him, though.

            Out of curiosity: do you think there are NO good French singers today, and even the French rep is better served by Americans, Germans, what have ye?

          • oedipe

            P.S. No good singers with the possible exception of Tézier, occasionally.

          • manou
          • Nerva Nelli

            Oedipe, if you took what I said above as praising without exception te judgments of all OPERA NEWS wrters, it is you who are missing my point; not did I say there are no good French singers.

            What I am saying is that I have seen, especially in OPÉRA MAGAZINE, praise for French singers (including Alagna)as good in performances where everyone else said they were bad. This does not mean that they are always bad, just that, to the OM writers, they are always good.

            The statements about Tezier were made in OM after a BALLO appearance.

  • May I make a small observation? Malatesta doesn’t mean “headache” (that would be mal di testa) but rather “bad head”, that is someone with a screw loose.

  • Bill

    Elina Garamca. in an interview with the Austrian
    Press today after a successful liederabend
    in Salzburg (Schumann, Berg, Strauss) indicated
    that she would be singing Favorita at the Met
    and in Munich in the future. Also Troyens in
    Vienna which is already known.

    I saw Favorita only once (in Vienna) with Urmana,
    Kuehmeier, Sabbatini (whatever happened to him?),
    Carlos Alvarez, Prestia with Fabio Luisi conducting a not particularly felicitious production and must
    admit I found the opera rather dull. Maybe Garanca
    can liven it up but I wish she had sung the Komponist
    in Ariadne instead which was once planned for Vienna,
    Covent Garden and the Met but scratched as Garanca
    could not get “into” to role -- seems strange as
    Lotte Lehmann, Elisabeth Schumann, Seefried, Jurinac,
    Welitch and Christa Ludwig all found the Komponist
    compatible and it helped propel each of these great
    singers to further greatness. And Garanca is such
    a fantastic Octavian these days -- probably the best



    • Sabbatini has retired from singing and is now conducting. Actually before he started his career as a tenor, he used to play double bass in the orchestra of the Rome Opera House.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      I can well understand Garanca shying away from the Komponist -- the role’s climaxes are really quite mercilessly written and call for big, sustained declamation at high tessitura. Garanca is not only a mezzo (in contrast to 5 out of the 6 examples you cite, Bill) but her voice is fundamentally a very lyrical one, and she seems to like to be pretty gentle and careful with how she deploys the top. Joyce DiDonato should take a leaf out of Garanca’s book -- she sounded stretched to damaging limits during her broadcast Met performance of the role last year.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Susan Davenny Wyner must be in her 70’s by now… n’est-ce pas?

    • MontyNostry

      Unforgotten for her rather roughly sung Enfant in Andre Previn’s EMI recording of Ravel’s opera.

  • The Vicar of John Wakefield

    This PASQAULE sounds not a patch on the postwar run at the Cambridge Theatre with Stabile and good old Martin Lawrence.

    “We have every reason to be proud of Martin Lawrence as Don Pasquale. On each side he sings first and is followed, with the same phrases, by Stabile as Dr. Malatesta. Lawrence’s Italian is well nigh impeccable and he rattles off his patter with hardly less assurance than the fine artist who follows him and who, in the theatre, took so charming a pride in the success of his British colleague.”

  • Albertine

    The title of the ‘Figaro’ review bears you out, Oedipe, although the content of the review I thought reasonably balanced -except the comment about some boos mixed with the ovation that I, for one,most certainly did not hear: I was there and, like Manou, I’d rather hear him singing, provided it does not damage his health. On the whole I loved the performance and I think it was also !because! of Alagna, along with the others.