Opéra National de Paris 2018-19 Review: Don Pasquale

Pretty Yende & Javier Camarena Have Incredible Chemistry, Once Again

By Mauricio Villa

“Don Pasquale” is often considered Donizetti’s comic masterpiece, and if it is not perform as regularly as Donizetti’s “ L’Elisir d’Amore”  one need not look further than the demanding part written for the tenor; but when you have Javier Camarena in the cast, you have no reason to worry about anything.

But this production was not only about the great Mexican tenor. This production was packed with tremendous star power.

The Palais Garnier revived the production by director Damiano Michieletto which debuted the previous season on the same stage. This young Italian director is famous for his witty approaches, always setting the operas close to the present with deep characterizations of the central figures of the story. When you see a production by Michieletto, every single action, every single move reinforces the dramatic or comic language of the opera. Above all, Michieletto has a touch for comedy; he knows how to handle hilarious situations without falling into a clown routine. In “Don Pasquale,” he can make a funny situation truthful, making you laugh and reflect at the same time.

An Old Tale Told Anew

In his interpretation of  “Don Pasquale,” we see and old outdated man who lives in a grey and dark world with a chain smoking old maid. His nephew Ernesto is a naïve teenager and Norina is a photographer’s assistant who dreams to become a big star one day. At the beginning of Act three, Norina has turned Don Pasquale’s world into a bright, white, luxury and fashionable world with new furniture and an expensive car. At the end of it all, Norina manages to keep, for Don Pasquale’s newly renovated house for herself, ultimately putting Don Pasquale into a nursing home and locking Ernesto and Malatesta out of the house.

He employs a wide array of visual technique in service of exploring this concept. The stage is basically an empty set where some lines hanging from above to represent Don Pasquale’s roof; there is some furniture marking what would be the different rooms of the house, a concept that Michieletto played with in his production of “La Scala de Seta” for Pesaro in 2009. The center of the stage turns around, showing you different points of view of the imaginary house. There is a green screen set at stage left, where the characters are recorded and projected on the white screen which closes the back of the stage, intertwined with videos and images. We see, for example, Norina transformed into a religious girl, surrounded by candles inside a church at one moment during her duet with Malatesta in Act one. Later, we see Norina and Ernesto in a forest during her duet, “Tornami a dir che m’ami.” And we see Don Pasquale in a nursing home at the very end of the opera.

Michieletto is very clever as he only uses, for example, the screen effect at three clear and concise moments rather than projecting videos all the time, which would ultimately burn down the impact of the technique. It is also brilliant to see how he narrates the story of the opera with three puppets manipulated by actors in the chorus, “che interminabile andirivieni,” during Act two.

The Bel Canto Couple of the Moment

Prettty Yende and Javier Camarena might be the Bel Canto couple of the moment. This season they hay already been seen together in “Puritani” at Teatre del Liceu and “La Fille du regiment” at the Met; based on the incredible outcomes of those productions (and this one), it is not a stretch to say that it has been an excellent artistic marriage. They are both young, with very good voices, clean and secure technique; they play very well together on stage, creating a number of unforgettable comic moments, such as the Act three duet in the forest.

Javier Camarena was the star of the night, even after the announcement that he was not feeling well. His timbre is beautiful, his pianissimi and diminuendo are breath-taking. This was most noticeable in diminuendo he employed for the high B natural on “Com’e gentil.” You could notice signs of fatigue prior to the delivery and Most tenors would have given it a forte resonance to avoid sustaining a piano high note; but Camarena managed a glorious effect with the softer high note.

In general, the Mexican tenors’ high notes are something out of this world. He coronated his cabaletta in Act two with a long sustained high D flat, a note most tenors try to produce with bad results. The main difficulty of Ernesto’s role is not the high notes, which are few, but the general tessitura of the role. In Ernesto’s aria “Povero Ernesto,” the tenor has to sing between an E flat and high A flat constantly, which is an uncomfortable register to maintain; then he has to sing several high B flats before concluding the aria. Ending it with a long high D flat requires that you manage to keep you keep your voice fresh. Camarena did an extremely good job with this. And his stamina and solid foundation was not only visible here, but in the first act duet with Don Pasquale, the ensemble scene which closes Act two and his second aria and duet with Norina in Act three.

Above all, without getting into many technical details, he makes it sound easy and his voice is always present, never hidden by his colleagues or the orchestra,  something that lighter tenors often struggle with. His voice is like an inverted pyramid; the higher it goes the more it opens up and sounds. His legato lines are never ending. What’s more, he did a remarkable job playing this naïve and spoiled teenager who enters the scene carrying a takeout pizza and wearing a baseball cap. You could really see a young boy madly in love on stage.

Pretty Yende is a South African soprano who has recently conquered the stages of the main opera houses around the world. She received a standing ovation after her debut at the Opera Bastille with “Lucia di Lammermor” and on this occasion, she was the ultimate master of her audience. Norina is a long lyrical part with coloratura and high notes and Pretty Yende’s voice suits that task perfectly. She has a powerful lyrical instrument with dark and vibrant hues in the middle register and ringing at the top of her voice. Moreover, she has a wide register (she can maintain a high F), but it is in the middle of the voice and up to high B flat where her timbre shines best.

Her interpretation of her cavatina “Quel guardo il cavaliere” was a cheerful display of good singing: legato lines, clean coloratura, secure high notes and full dedication to her character. I just missed more variations on the second part of her aria, which is surprising since Yende is famous for adding original ornamentations to her arias. She has been criticized by that, as Joan Sutherland or Beverly Sills were as well, but I consider it more interesting to hear new cadenzas and variations created by the performer rather than the traditional ones. Nonetheless, she compensated with wonderfully newly variations on the final ”La morale in tutto questo.” Yende makes the music her own, as was most noticeable during her duo with Malatesta, the long ensemble scene at the end of act Act two, or her duo with Don Pasquale in Act three.

Her personification of Norina was witty, joyfull and full of energy which helped you empathizes with this dark side of Norina which Mechieletto presented.

Lower Voices To Marvel At

Michele Pertusi portrayed the title role of Don Pasquale. He is an expert in the bel canto repertoire, famous for his Rossini interpretations. Don Pasquale is a buffo part, which means that the vocal line is more parlatto, frequently very fast. This, of course, demands a perfect Italian diction, clear articulation, and a precise use of the breath. The general tessitura of the role is quite high, which is why it is usually performed by bass-baritones.

Pertusi did a remarkable job fulfilling all these tasks, even though his voice seemed tired and dry at his first scene with Malatesta and aria “Ah, un fuoco insolito.” However, he warmed up throughout the performance, offering a sensitive “È finita, Don Pasquale” in Act two. He was also a dazzling and impressive in “ Aspetta, aspetta,” sung in an impossibly fast tempi.

He presented a pathetic old bachelor who doesn’t hesitate in wearing a girdle and dying his hair to impress his future wife Sofronia. Pertusi played the part with truly implication, never overreacting or trying to make fun of the situation.

Florian Sempey took on the part of Malatesta for this final performance of “Don Pasquale” after stepping in for the previous performance in Act three. The Opéra National de Paris has not been lucky with the casting of this part, as the famous polish star Mariusz Kwiecien withdrew from the production months before its opening. Considering that Sempey had two days to rehearse the role, he did an extremely good job. He did not seem insecure on the scene and his connection with maestro Michele Mariotti in the pit was perfect. Sempey’s voice blended perfectly with Yende and Pertusi in their duets together and he provided a velvet timbre and vocal line for his entrance aria “Bella siccome un angelo,” which was sung with an exquisite taste. Finally, his technique and diction during the frenzied duet with “Don Pasquale” were perfect in timing and measure.

A special mention must be made to the actress Marie-Pascale Grenier who played the silent role of the old maid, a character created by Micheletto and who is present throughout the opera. She folds Ernesto’s clothes, prepares his bag, gives him food, and holds him tenderly during the tenor’s aria “Cerchero lontana terra.” She is also funny in her passive reactions and the looks she gives Don Pasquale throughout the whole performance.

The young Italian conductor Michele Mariotti was at the pit of Palais Garnier. He gave a passionate reading of the score, reinforcing the tempi to the extreme. He went for really fast or really slow tempi, which was particularly noticeable during the wonderful overture of the opera. He did the same with the dynamics, going from pianissimi to piu forte, creating a very interesting play of emotions that gave the music vitality and meaning. This was a breath of fresh air as most conductors don’t offer much variety in their readings of bel canto scores, ultimately amounting to musical tedium. If Michieletto created a somewhat verismo opera with the staging of this bel canto buffa masterpiece, Mariotti made Donizetti’s score sound as dynamic as one of Wagner’s, to remarkable result.

This was an incredible performance through and through, thanks to its impeccable performers and a fantastic production.


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