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Delectable Donizetti

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
10/29/2010 -  and November 2, 6, 10*, 13, 18, 2010, February 4, 8, 11, 14, 19, 2011
Gaetano Donizetti: Don Pasquale
Anna Netrebko (Norina), Matthew Polenzani (Ernesto), Mariusz Kwiecien (Dr. Malatesta), John Del Carlo (Don Pasquale), Bernard Fitch (Notary)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine/Joseph Colaneri (Conductor)
Otto Schenk (Production), Rolf Langenfass (Costume and Set Designer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer)

A. Netrebko and J. Del Carlo (© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Toward the end of a truly tragic yet remarkably prolific life, Donizetti produced this comic and musical gem. It put a smile on the face and a spring in the step of the capacity audience at the Metropolitan opera. And it’s virtually guaranteed to do the same for you should you have the good fortune to experience it, either in the house or in a live or encored HD broadcast.

At the heart of the simple story are two scheming friends, Norina and Dr. Malestata, who set out to teach the miserly old uncle of Norina’s beloved a well-deserved lesson. They trick Pasquale into a sham marriage with Malatesta’s non-existent sister (impersonated by Norina). A modest and achingly shy girl before the marriage, she metamorphoses into a free –spending shrew, as soon as the contract is signed. Malatesta’s aim is to use the disastrous albeit side-splittingly funny results of this “marriage” as means to force the old man to drop his opposition to Norina’s marriage to Pasquale’s nephew, Ernesto. While initially Ernesto is left out of the plan, he enthusiastically joins the conspiracy. The story is rather like a richly comic and quintessentially Italian version of A Christmas Carol with Don Pasquale as Scrooge and the devilishly charismatic Malestesta doing the job of Dickens’ three ghostly apparitions. At the end – as they do in Dickens – the reformed miser, his nephew and his niece by a marriage the old man had never wanted to take place, live happily ever after.

The only shadow over the proceedings last evening was the withdrawal of James Levine during the interval before Act 3. So beloved is Maestro Levine that any hint of continued medical affliction is received with great worry and sadness. The Met has since said that the problem was minor and Levine will be in the conductor’s chair for the HD broadcast on November 13th. That is good news indeed.

This traditional Otto Schenk production was first seen at the Met in 2006. It has returned with two of the original cast, Netrebko and Kwiecien, and two new members, Polenzani and Del Carlo, who replaced Juan Diego Flórez and Simone Alaimo, respectively. For Netrebko, her Met role debut just four years ago was a major breakthrough. Since then, her career has progressed from strength to strength all over the world. She remains a great favorite here, be it in comedy or tragedy. Her Mimi last season was sublime – beautifully sung and deeply moving. Netrebko’s scheming yet always joyous and irrepressible Norina is a good fit for what is clearly her own extroverted and fun-loving nature. Her stage presence last night had such exuberance and warmth. And her richly-colored full voice was just gorgeous from top to bottom. At the lower end of her range, she almost sounded like a mezzo, and she has a seemingly effortless radiant top. Her voice had the agility required for the role; her trills and diction were passable. She also has power to spare.

And what a comédienne she is! Her transformation from a poor girl to an almost impossibly elegant lady, bedecked with jewels, was hilarious. There was, however, a poignant moment of regret after she slapped Pasquale, who had ordered her to stay at home. She had hurt him and not just physically. He was humiliated and, at least for a time, a broken man. Norina’s sympathy for him makes her more sympathetic as well. But she remains determined, pushing on with the plot so that she can marry her true love, Ernesto.

Polenzani as Ernesto was marvelous. I have never heard him in better voice. He sang with a lovely lyrical line. The beautiful yet haunting melody of his act three folk-like serenade took up residence in my mind and remains there still. His duet with Netrebko was beautifully and movingly sung by both. One of the oddities of this opera is that the only duet for the romantic leads comes near the end. Up until then, Netrebko’s musical connection was really with Kwiecien. He and Netrebko clearly had a grand time with their over-the-top characterizations. And what a portrayal Kwiecien turned in! His acting was deft and his characterization richly detailed. He crept around the stage with the elegance and grace of a cat. This comic Mephistopheles, always plotting, always manipulating everyone, did it all for love. Vocally Kwiecien was superb,with beautiful sonorous voice, wonderful legato and just about perfect coloratura technique. Not every opera singer can do comedy but he certainly can. And I hope he does more of it at the Met.

John Del Carlo, seen last season as Dr. Bartolo in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, was an irascible yet pitiable Pasquale. He was bewildered and befuddled, and quite ridiculous in his misplaced vanity. When at the end, Pasquale learns that his marriage had been a sham and he had been tricked yet again – this time into agreeing to the union of Ernesto and Norina – he accepts his lot with grace and good will. They all agree that marriage is not meant for old men. Vocally, Del Carlo was splendid. His patter singing in the encored duet with Kwiecien had the audience cheering.

The Met Orchestra, first under James Levine and then Joseph Colaneri, wonderfully spun out Donizetti’s entrancing melodies. There was such lightness, but also vibrancy and charm. Levine had been scheduled to conduct the production in 2006, but had to bow out for health reasons. It was very sad to see him leave the pit, but Colaneri was an excellent substitute. The Met Chorus did not have much to do but what they did, they did beautifully.

Don Pasquale will be broadcast worldwide in HD on November 13th. The transmission will reach more than 1,500 move theaters in more than 40 countries. For information and tickets, please follow this link.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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