Cher Public

The beautiful rooms are empty

It appears that Mariame Clément’s conception of Don Pasquale is that the opera should be retitled Malatesta. During the overture a man is seen slinking in and out of three revolving rooms—Pasquale’s room, Ernesto’s room, and Norina’s apartment. Dr. Malatesta (Nikolay Borchev) is some vaguely sinister Casanova type who maliciously manipulates Don Pasquale (Alessandro Corbelli).  

Malatesta’s relationship with Norina (Danielle de Niese) is sexual. She greets him in her skivvies and their duet is accompanied by him undressing her behind a screen. It’s implied that he doesn’t mind slapping her around if she displeases him. The always vapid Ernesto (Alek Shrader) is in this production an even bigger brat than usual—a total drunk wastrel who lies around in his messy room strumming the guitar.

I have no issue a “rethinking” of this comedy and Donizetti’s opera certainly has enough built-in tartness that a director can easily emphasize the darker sides of the story. However, if you want to “go there” with this new concept, there needs to be more consistency. Clément’s production vacillates between this dark, sour take on the story and a certain primness and safeness of still wanting to be a traditional opera buffa production.

For example, after the “scandalous” scene of Malatesta undressing Norina, she gets into the bathtub—but still in her underwear. So the implication is that they are intimate, but let’s not really offend anyone here. There are some pointless touches—Norina in her opening scene is not reading a romance novel but rather writing a letter. The patter duet between Pasquale and Malatesta ends with them holding dueling pistols. Why? Who knows, because they just run offstage.

And at the end, it’s clear that the Ernesto/Norina marriage will have a third party in Malatesta. But the ambiguity doesn’t go anywhere. The result is a production that is neither funny enough for opera buffa nor thought-provoking enough for regietheater. It’s just generally sour and unpleasant.

The production used to be a touring production and you can see why—it’s one of those rotating paper walls productions. It might be perfectly charming in the house but on video it looks slightly cheap, like something that the NYCO might have used in the 1970’s.

It’s set in the 18th century, and as I said, I think the idea is to make Don Pasquale more of a Mozart/da Ponte type “comedy” where the emphasis is on sexual imbalances and power trips of the aristocracy. But the idea is followed through in a half-assed way. The costumes are nice. Sometimes I think the extras are there just to show off the nice costumes. For instance, the chorus are all immaculately dressed in powdered white wigs and white 18th century clothes. Why are there so many of them, especially on that tiny set? Who knows.

The singers are inconsistently directed. Only Borchev seems to have gotten the message that is a new Don Pasquale that eschews the usual opera buffa business. Corbelli does the exact same Pasquale schtick that he does in an earlier video, and let’s face it, everything he sings nowadays, no matter what the opera.

De Niese is constantly the focus of loving close-ups but her portrayal is just the same-old minx of other Pasquale productions. She doesn’t really exude enough warmth to make Norina seem like anything but a total bitch. Ernesto in this production becomes practically an afterthought, but Shrader looks cute, which doesn’t hurt.

The interaction among the foursome is awkward. The chemistry is slightly off—there’s not that illusion that these performers really enjoy performing with each other. That illusion is so important to maintain in opera buffa—if everyone’s going to have a jolly good time, then the performers should act like they’re having fun too.

The singing is uneven as well. Corbelli at this stage doesn’t have much of a voice left—a hollow baritone. He’s very experienced in the opera buffa schtick, but I prefer a more substantial bass to sing Pasquale. But he’s an old hat at this sort of thing. Borchev is quite the barihunk with a fairly rich deep timbre. His patter is not great though. The patter duet “Questa repentina chiamanta” shows that Corbelli even in his advanced age can still pull of the rapid-fire patter while Borchev seems to be garbling and swallowing words.

Danielle de Niese—oh boy. I know anything said about her at parterre degenerates into really crude, mean comments about her butt/body, her status in Glyndebourne (married to the boss and all), and downright racism. I have no such irrational negative feelings for her. I thought she was charming as Despina and Ariel.

But I don’t think Norina is a good role for her. The role sits on the shrill, sharp upper register of her voice, rather than its warmer, mellower middle. The timbre of her voice just makes Norina sound unlikable and shrewish. Her opening cavatina “Quel guardo il cavaliere” might be the most charmless rendition I’ve ever heard. She has no real feel for bel canto music either, with that tendency to peck at the notes like an old-style Viennese soubrette. Also: no trill.

As is often the case in so many productions today, the standout is the tenor. Alek Shrader you might remember as the nice, reserved young man in The Audition who hits it out of the park with a gorgeous “Ah mes amis.” Even in a production where Ernesto is basically wallpaper, Shrader’s voice is impressive for its sweetness and for its timbre, which is darker than the usual light tenor leggiero. “Com’e gentil” is superb. He’s also really cute.

Enrique Mazzola in the pit does some nice work, giving a lilting account of Donizetti’s score.

This DVD is unusual in that it comes with several extras, though they are pretty dull and if anything show the gulf between intentions and outcomes. In the “behind the scenes” mini-documentary Clément talks about bringing out the “lightness” and “humor” of the work. De Niese talks about making Norina sincere and likable. Shrader is interviewed but I forgot what he said as I kept rewinding back to his blue eyes.

De Niese also “introduces” the opera. She is depicted “walking” to work in a slinky tailored skirt, pencil heels, and a silk blouse. It reminds me of those old pictures of opera stars in the recording studios of Rome in the dead of summer wearing mink stoles and wool suits.

In all fairness to de Niese, she’s in good company with regards to shrill, unlikable Norinas on video. Eva MeiIsabel Rey and Alda Noni all have sharp, glass-shattering voices and charmless personas. Anna Netrebko has a lush voice and a likable, bubbly persona but is rather approximate with the coloratura. Only Nuccia Focile combines enough charm with a lovely voice to make a genuinely likable, well-sung Norina on the DVD from La Scala, with Ferrucio Furlanetto, Lucio GalloGregory Kunde and Riccardo Muti leading the band.

This new effort from Glyndebourne is for completists only. Or Alek Shrader fans.

  • phoenix

    Really objective, informative review -- get on here and read this -- Ivy is a sharp observer of this work she knows very well. I heard the broadcast and enjoyed it: as Ivy sez, it wasn’t the ideal but it was better than a lot of the others.

  • armerjacquino

    All Glyndebourne productions are desgined to tour as well as for the house, although some of them wear better than others.

    • Regina delle fate

      Not all, Armerj -- Meistersinger and Tristan will never tour, and I don’t expect the new three-set Rosenkavalier will either. In the old house, most were designed to tour but I suspect it is easier to “expand” productions than it is to cut them down. The Jonathan Kent Don Giovanni was nowhere near as elaborate on tour as it was at the Festival. In fact, I’m pretty sure it had a purpose-built touring set. Some things don’t tour -- last year’s Hippolyte et Aricie for example -- because their chances of selling 50% of the house in places like Stoke-on-Trent or Milton Keynes are pretty slim.

  • Milady DeWinter

    Yes, as usual, a very considered and balanced review -- thanks Ivy. I just can’t tolerate the lovely Ms. DiNiese’s voice, which is charming in recitative, and that’s about it. As far as a singing tone, it sounds like two aspirins being shaken in the bottle.

    • phoenix

      how different we all are -- I like DiNeise’s voice, particularly the middle (as Ivy notes above) -- her top is a bit pecked at & scratchy here in this Pasquale, but for me it doesn’t diminish the overall beauty of her vocal performance. I have difficulty with her performances only because she rarely sings any rep that I’m interested in -- this Pasquale was an exception. Now it’s time for her to do something more suitable to her voice -- how about a Leila or a Mélisande?

    • phoenix

      Milady, perchance have you heard Desirée Rancatore as Norina? You will need a lot more than 2 aspirins.

      • MontyNostry

        Judging by her concert Gilda in London last year, Rancatore is father vulgar and emotionally uninvolved -- and there’s too much vibrato going on -- but the sound is much fuller and shinier than Dani’s.

      • oedipe

        I would listen to Rancatore over de Niese any day! (I find Niese’s sound simply unpleasant.) But what do I know, I have such unclassy tastes.

        • phoenix

          You ‘unclassy’? Hardly.
          -- Rancatore is actually more authentic both vocally & idiomatically for operas like Comte d’ory & Don Pasquale than DiNiese is -- but here is what I hear: the metallic edging on Rancatore’s voice doesn’t just stay on the rim of her tone, it permeates her entire voice, making it sound (to me) hard & abrasive. On the other hand, DiNiese has a warm & attractive middle voice that appeals to me tonally/aesthetically.
          -- Ranacatore has good volume and the voice penetrates, that’s for sure -- perhaps if she were singing a different I would like her.

          • oedipe

            Well, it’s all relative (and subjective). I am by no means a fan of Rancatore but, metallic or not, I find her voice relatively less harsh than de Niese’s, whose warmth eludes me.

            • phoenix

              with DiNiese I only hear harshness when she pecks at the top notes -- but it doesn’t sound like that rep is good for her anyway

  • Camille

    Please and thankyou for not taking the easy way out and dumping on DdN, Ivylina.

    She is what she is, and is not wholly without merit, no matter the cries and whimpers, the howls and lightening bolts of disdain here in pBox. Certain roles are fine and I suspect that Norina, okay in the abstract, is maybe not such a good fit. I’ll not know for certain as this time I’ll not bother myself.

    There is a word “vedette”, which kind of accurately sums up a part of her charms, it occurs to me.

    • Milady DeWinter

      Camille -- I think you nailed it correctly with DdN -- “vedette” is very apt!

    • phoenix

      why not bother? here it is:

      • Camille

        Phoenix, no time and I am an old fart just like you and am sticking with my birdy biddy Bidu Sayao on this one.

        I also just LURVED La Nebbarina’s take on it. Bad Gurl.

        Ciao 4 now!

        • phoenix

          Save it on your favorites bar and watch it on a sleepless rainy night in Georgia.
          -- I liked La Nebbarina’s Norina too -- in fact I went onto the chat last time she did it and enjoyed myself immensely -- unfortunately that was about the last time I could get enthusiastic with her -- as Christa Ludwig once said (I don’t have the exact phrasing of the quote correct, but here goes an approximation): most singer’s careers are divided into 3 parts: the first 10 years of honing your craft; the second 10 years of prime singing; and the third 10 years of coasting on the merits of what you did before.

          • Camille

            Christa also said this when she made a visit to one of those Ma hattan music schools “It’s a lonely life”. [a singer’s life was implied] and then as to emphasize she repeated herself: “It’s a lonely, LONELY life.”

            I never had the chance to hear her sing but that one phrase which I heard her utter jn the most forlorn and utterly truth-telling form, was a moment with a great performer I’ll never forget.

            If anyone might beat some sense into the hard headed Poppy, and teach her to sing, maybe it is she. At least I hope so.

            Yeah, that was my fave Nebbarina thing, too.

            • Benedetta Funghi-Trifolati

              Christa’s autobiography, “In My Own Voice” is an absolute delight, and as singers’ bios go, extremely natural, down-to-earth, interesting, wise and just plain fun. Not a list of, “…and then I sang…” in sight. Given the length of her career and the eminent stature of those she appeared with (conductors, directors, accompanists, singing colleagues, etal.) it’s very interesting. I miss her to this day.

            • Buster

              Stumbled upont his clip of Christa Ludwig and her mum a while back:

              The German title of the book is more amusing “and I So Wanted to Be a Prima Donna”

    • Grane

      With respect, this seems a bit hard on the Parterriat. The last time I recall lengthy discussion of DDN’s patootie, it was after a close-up photo of same had been…um, disseminated…to the media and appeared prominently placed in a general-interest periodical.

      Any thoughts on why she is not appearing either of the Met’s HD performances next season?

    • Regina delle fate

      Camille -- in the theatre she was fine as Norina and Adina. Yes the voice is a bit thin, but at Glyndebourne her charm works a treat and she has the audience eating out her hand by the end. True half of them probably like her because they hope she might get them an invite to the “top table” in the dinner interval on nights when she’s not singing, but all of her Glyndebourne appearances have been successes with the audiences and the critics here have generally been very kind to her. They are doing a new Barbiere for her next year, the first time, I think, that a soprano has sung the role there. She’s found exactly the right role for herself in the UK as the “Audrey Mildmay de nos jours”. Of course Mildmay, the first châteleine of Glyndebourne, didn’t sing regularly at the Met. If only Fiend and Rattray had been around in those days…… :)

      • Regina delle fate

        From Wiki -- “Busch passed over her [Mildmay] when casting Susanna for the Metropolitan Opera in 1943, leading to a breakdown in the warm relationship between Busch and the Christies.”

        Didn’t stop them from inviting him back as music director after the war, though. He opened the first post-war festival with a now-famous Idomeneo.

        • Krunoslav

          Well, Wiki git right in the entry on Busch, who did not conduct at the Met until 1945 but led an organization called the “New Opera”, in which Regina Resnik and Florence Kirk sang Lady Macbeth before their Met engagements:

          “He resumed the Glyndebourne musical directorship in 1950 following a healing of breach with the organisation over Busch’s failure to cast Audrey Mildmay for a 1941 New Opera Company, New York production of Così fan tutte at a time when she badly needed money.[11] He also conducted at the Met in New York from 1945 to 1949,”

          I made the requisite changes to the Mildmay page.

    • Regina delle fate

      I love that word -- “vedette d’opérette” is probably what DdN is if anyone was doing much opérette these days. I think she’d be a sensational Eurydice in Offenbach’s Orphée….Actually I’d LOVE to see Orphée aus Enfers or La Vie Parisienne at Glynditz. :)

  • Thanks for the nice words. I absolutely love that picture of Callas. Most recordings were done in the middle of summer in Italy. And she’s wearing a mink stole. Gotta love 1950’s publicity photos.

    Here’s a video of the Ernesto/Norina duet in this video:

    • Regina delle fate

      Haha Ivy -- my favourite Callas photo is the one taken at or after the sessions of the EMI Turandot and Callas is dressed like a fashion diva à la Coco Chanel and Schwarzkopf is in a grey shift looking like a maid-cum-prison-warder. :)

  • Milady DeWinter

    Ive, indeed, that is a gorgeous photo of Callas. I think made during the stereo remake sessons of “Lucia” in 1959?

    • Milady DeWinter

      Oops, “Ivy”!

  • Wait. Aren’t Malatesta and Norina brother and sister? That would mean that their relationship involves implied incest which would be icky.

    • manou

      What if they were twins, as well?

      • So has there ever been a “Rosenkavalier” production where Octavian was the son the Marschallin never knew she had?

        • Batty Masetto

          Pretty close. Hofmannsthal’s scenario for a “Rosenkavalier” film that was made in 1925 includes a scene where she confesses to Oktavian that she’d had a baby boy who died as an infant.

          Of course that was written 15 years and a World War later, when he’d probably lost contact with the impulse that gave rise to the original. I find it hard to think of Marie Theres’ as a Mom.

          • “He’d be just about your age today…”

            • Ilka Saro

              Il rogo! Il rogo!

        • phoenix

          Sounds like re-hash of the old Semiramide plot.

    • Krunoslav

      They are not. Malatesta SAYS that he has a sister “Sophronia” and that’s who Norina pretends to be. Very clear in that otherwise, when Pasquale

      tells Ernesto that he was engaged to marry Malatesta’s sister, Ernesto ( who knows nothing of the plan to help him) would think Norina was the sister in question.

      I’d like to see a staging in which it was clear that Malatesta carried a torch for Ernesto.

        • Krunoslav

          Bello siccome un angelo!

          • Regina delle fate


      • Gualtier M

        The libretto of “Don Pasquale” was adapted from “Ser Marc’Antonio” of Pavesi. In that libretto the Doctor figure is the brother of the heroine Bettina. (This is from Philip Gossett’s “Divas and Scholars).

        Also, I believe in the old John Dexter production at the Met (which I never saw being a young and dewy ingenue still…) Hakan Hagegard as Malatesta wore a green carnation in his buttonhole (a Dexter touch). So maybe in that production Malatesta had a hankering for the tenor…

  • Guestoria Unpopularenka

    This is also a lush-voiced Norina

  • Porgy Amor

    The overture in Muti I, the Scala one from 1994 on TDK and later Arthaus, is a dream performance. It puts the singers in a position of having a lot to live up to, and it does turn out to be the highlight of the performance. Although everyone in the cast is at least good, my ear keeps being drawn to what the orchestra is doing; there is so much to notice and admire. It’s a warmer and more relaxed reading than Muti’s ’80s EMI recording with Freni et al. — a pleasing evolution.

    Muti II, also on Arthaus, 2006, is not as good. The conducting remains top-notch, but the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini cannot match the suavity and brilliance of the Scala in response. Three-fourths of the cast is young and attractive, and so they embody these characters fetchingly, but they look better than they sound. Corbelli is the Don there too.

    Conducting geek though I am, I still like the 2010 Met performance best, and Levine is not a great asset there. Bel canto is not his strongest suit anyway, and his physical problems were probably hampering him. Every time a new theme emerges in the overture, it’s as though the piece is being jump-started; it doesn’t seem cohesively held together, as Muti manages. This was Levine’s penultimate HD broadcast before his long layoff, and he totters out for his ovation very gingerly.

    The singers in the Met performance have more personality, though. They’re all really funny people on stage except for Polenzani, and fortunately he’s playing the one unfunny character.

    The two productions contrast in an interesting way, even though they both could be called traditional. Furlanetto’s Don Pasquale (Muti/Scala) is a dignified, cultivated older man with a taste for the finer things. “Sofronia” makes his home more modern and gauche, covering up his antiques. Del Carlo’s Don Pasquale (Levine/Met) is a shambling caricature whose villa is as much of a wreck as he is, from the start. It is easier to be amused by the mean pranks played on Del Carlo, because you can’t take him as seriously.

    Scala wins for the chorus; they look and sound just right. That scene in which the servants gossip is close to my heart; it is one of the best examples of such a thing in the genre.

    The Muti/Scala is some kind of master-class in how to play a bel canto opera, but if I were down to one, I would keep the Met’s. It’s just more fun, especially with Trebs and/or Kwiecien are on the stage.

    • Porgy Amor

      Whoa, I made a mistake. Desderi rather than Corbelli is Don P. in the second Muti video.

  • Ilka Saro

    Poison Ivy, thanks for this review, and your remarks about the usual Parterre shark fest on De Niese. When I saw this article and saw that De Niese was on the DVD cover, I actually withdrew a bit before proceeding, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to read what anyone said about her. Though I have yet to be impressed by her, I am puzzled by the viciousness that some people seem to think is her due.

    • Well some of it is racism. Just flat out racism. Confirmed by all the Kathleen Battle comparisons even though they are not of the same ethnicity. But “darker skinned soprano with a powerful role via marriage? We can’t have that.”