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.