Nearly a fifth of the operas appearing onstage this year at the Met were written by the 19th century Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti, and together, they all provide the opportunity to experience the broad range of his artistic mastery. Already audiences have been treated to two of three operas of the “Tudor Trilogy,” dramas depicting the trials of British royalty and this season starring Sondra Radvanovksy. This season in March, two of his mirthful comedies share the stage. L’elisir d’amore (“The Elixir of Love”) opens at the end of this week, while Donizzetti’s outlandish farce Don Pasquale returned last Friday in a revival of an exuberant production by director Otto Schenk.
Beneath an evening of hilarious shenanigans lies a fairly simple plot. The old bachelor Don Pasquale has promised to bequeath a small fortune to his pouty nephew Ernesto as long as he agrees to marry the woman Pasquale has selected. Ernesto refuses, and Pasquale, with the aid of the wily Doctor Malatesta, decides to cast out Ernesto and find himself a young wife instead.
Pasquale is beside himself when Malatesta offers him the hand of his docile sister Sophronia, but little does he know that this delicate bride is none other than Norina, Ernesto’s beloved, in disguise. Before the ink can dry on their false marriage contract, Norina turns into a demanding shrew and terrorizes Pasquale unceasingly until he abandons any hope of marital bliss. Eventually, the young lovers are ultimately reunited, everyone is reconciled, and all join in proclaiming the opera’s wry moral: Only trouble awaits the old man who weds a young wife.
As the curmudgeonly Pasquale, rotund Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri returned to the Met after past triumphs as the scheming Doctor Dulcamara in “L’elisir d’amore” and the buffoonish title character in Verdi’s “Falstaff.” A “maestro” of farce, Maestri brings impeccable timing and telling facial expressions to every outsized character he plays and excels at patter singing, a hallmark of Italian comic opera during which long lines of text are declaimed at great speed.
Making an exciting Met debut, soprano Eleonora Buratto conveyed Norina’s dual sweetness and cunning with lustrous timbre and dynamic physicality. Early on, the top of her range tended to get away from her, but as the evening progressed, she focused her tone and offered pure, creamy singing. Hers is a voice that will undoubtedly become rounded and more secure with time, but even on this occasion, she managed to blend nicely with her colleagues.
Rising Mexican tenor Javier Camarena played Ernesto, lending his supple instrument to yet another successful interpretation of beloved Bel Canto character. In this repertoire, there is often a risk that a tenor’s bright tone can grate on the ear, but Camarena’s warm, heartfelt voice and masterfully fluid phrasing always ensure great lyricism. The prolonged applause he received after his Act 2 aria “Povero Ernesto” was well deserved.
Rounding out the ensemble, Levente Molnár brought spirited panache to his portrayal of Malatesta, not only matching his colleagues’ winning stage presence and rapid-fire singing, but also bringing a rich depth to more expressive moments. On the podium, conductor Marizio Bennini evoked spirited color and Italianate style from the orchestra and chorus, though his pacing often got ahead of the action onstage, forcing the singers to struggle to keep up with the accelerated tempi.
While we await the end of winter’s chill, the lovable antics of “Don Pasquale” should warm the hearts of Columbia students desperately seeking an escape from impending midterms.
Performances of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale continue through March 18, with this Saturday’s matinee performance being broadcast live on WQXR 105.9FM. More information can be found online at metopera.org