This past Friday evening, Raindog and I attended the new production premiere of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at the Metropolitan Opera.
Mostly it’s great. The sets are wonderful: they nicely evoke the crumbling, sun-baked casual glamour of middle-class Italy. The garden in the last act is especially beautiful. Still, they take too long to switch: Pasquale is a wonderfully paced, relatively short opera. The Met stretches it out to three and a half hours. Directed by the great Otto Schenk, in his farewell to the stage after a long and wonderful career, the staging is traditional; generally very good, but the ensembles lack a spark of originality, and poor Malatesta has nothing to do but sing the first half of “Bella siccome” on the left side of Pasquale’s chair and then switch for the second verse.
Maurizio Benini was the perfect choice to replace James Levine at the podium following the maestro’s shoulder injury: Benini understands and happily exploits the built-in flexibility and expressiveness of Donizetti’s orchestra writing; paying close attention to dynamics and changes of tempo, he elicits a wonderful, quintessentially Italianate energy. In the solo moments, he happily lets the singers do their thing, understanding the required symbiotic relationship.
Overall, the singing was truly exceptional. Anna Netrebko, as Norina, has a stage presence rare among opera singers, and the Met audience clearly adores her. Her voice is unusually dark and creamy for the repertoire she sings, but I do fear it’s a bit manufactured. She’s quite musical, but we wondered if she was worried about filling the cavernous Met: she sang at a mostly unstinting forte all evening long. The effort was apparent in the shrill and squally timbre of her high C’s and the badly articulated coloratura. Norina is not a technical tour-de-force; next year Netrebko is slated for I Puritani at the Met, and if she doesn’t back off and relax on her singing, I don’t think she’ll be able to do it. She sounded like a Tosca; she’ll never get through “Son vergin vezzosa” like that.
Her partner in volume was the young baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. It’s a robust and glorious sound, even in timbre from top to bottom and easily produced. Still, he sang as if to say, “I’m just singing this junior role now, but I’m letting you know that really I’m a Rigoletto.” Loud, loud, loud. Wonderful voice, but his performance was woefully lacking in musical nuance and anything but the most generalized character.
They both need to take a cue from the primo tenore di grazia del mondo, Juan Diego Florez. His is a slender, small-scaled instrument (as voices of that register tend to be), but he sings with confidence that even his gentlest mezza voce will carry all the way to standing room. He sang effortlessly with tremendous grace, sensitivity and attention to musical and textual detail, even in this mercilessly high role.
Unfortunately he was undone between Acts 2 and 3 by a sudden allergy attack, and had to withdraw from the performance, being replaced by Barry Banks. Interestingly I’ve met Mr. Banks; he was singing in Rossini’s Ermione at Santa Fe when I was an apprentice there. I remember him saying that he never needed to warm up, he was always able to just sing. Lucky him, since on a moment’s notice he had to step into the last act of a new production premiere on the heels of a popular and wonderful singer, launching immediately into the high-flying serenade “Com’e gentil” with its high B followed by the duet “Tornami a dir” with a high C-sharp. He was spectacular: his singing was every bit as healthy, beautiful and expressive as Mr. Florez’s, and he seemed astonishingly confident given the circumstances. He received a well-won ovation.
There’s not much to say about Simone Alaimo’s portrayal of the title character, other than “masterful.” He perfectly captured the difficult balance between the parlando quality of basso-buffo roles while really singing. He expertly telegraphed the sincere anguish at the beginning of Act 3 when Norina impetuously smacks him across the face. At that moment she realizes that for all Pasquale’s curmudgeonly unlikeableness, he’s a human being, not a villain, and her farce has gone one step too far. All he wanted was a wife, and now she’s broken the heart he gave so easily.
All things considered, it’s a superior performance. If Netrebko and Kwiecien just had more confidence in their voices and stopped trying so hard to prove themselves, the production might well achieve perfection.