Teatro alla Scala 2023-24 Review: Don Pasquale

By Bernardo Gaitan
The Donizettian musicologist and researcher Luca Zoppelli notes that we are unusually well-informed about the genesis of Don Pasquale, thanks to Giovanni Ruffini. Ruffini, a young Italian writer and political refugee in Paris, met Gaetano Donizetti and began collaborating with him. Initially, Ruffini translated to the Italian Dom Sébastien before writing the libretto for “Don Pasquale,” which he signed with the name of his friend: Michele Accursi.
“Don Pasquale” is based on the dramma giocoso by Angelo Anelli, “Ser Marcantonio,” which was set to music by Stefano Pavesi in 1810. In the autumn of 1842, Donizetti, after reviewing several options, chose this old comic libretto for the new season of the Théâtre Italien in Paris.

The Creation of Don Pasquale

Ruffini wrote long weekly letters to his mother, who remained in Italy. In these letters, he expressed his frustration with the continuous changes requested by Donizetti but also spoke of the generous financial reward, which was crucial for him as an immigrant without a stable job. He also shared various theatrical anecdotes about the creation of the now-immortal “Don Pasquale.”
The premise of the story is not at all novel; it is based on the traditional -but infallible- formula of 18th-century opera buffa. Here, a couple in love (typically a tenor and a soprano) faces obstacles from an old man (usually a bass or baritone) who also desires the female protagonist, while all the threads are pulled by a clever character, a friend to everyone.
With this general description, we can synthesize a large number of operas from the classicism and bel canto periods. Why has a title like “Don Pasquale” endured over the years compared to other operas with similar plots? The Italian musicologist Claudio Toscani offers an answer in the theater program of this Teatro alla Scala revival. Toscani asserts that “Don Pasquale” is a complex comedy, which sometimes leans towards the ridiculous, but other times is wrapped in melancholic lyricism, as seen for example, in the arias of Norina and Ernesto. However, the true triumph of this bel canto masterpiece lies in its “regionalism;” the formula of the old miser who ruins the love of a young couple is quintessentially Italian.
When it premiered on January 3th 1843, at the Théâtre Italien, the Parisians were shocked and fascinated. Accustomed to opéra comique, they discovered that this Italian formula worked perfectly in the teatro buffo, naturally combined with Donizetti’s extraordinary music.
Among the curiosities that have reached us thanks to Ruffini is that Antonio Tamburini, the famous baritone destined to play the role of Dottore Malatesta for the first time, did not have a great relationship with Luigi Lablache, who played Don Pasquale. Ruffini tells his mother in a letter that “they were like cats and dogs.”

The Scala Version

Donizetti clearly specified in his notes that the plot had to be set in “modern times, in modern Rome” and that the characters had to dress in “contemporary plain clothes.” This indication poses a dilemma for any regista and costume designer, since Donizetti’s “current Rome” is in reality, our Rome of the mid-19th century. The solution that stage director Davide Livermore used in 2018 (the year this production premiered at La Scala) was an in-between, since he set the plot in Rome in the 1950s. As is usual in the productions of the Piedmontese regista, the work is full of cinematographic references, with a special emphasis on Italian cinema of the 50s and evident allusions to films by Federico Fellini, Pietro Germi, Vittorio De Sica, Dino Risi and Camillo Mastrocinque.
The stage, designed by the Giò Forma studio, presents a dark Rome, in a black and white cinematic style, featuring an accurate reproduction of the famous Termini train station, the iconic Cinecittà studios and projecting aerial shots of the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain and other Roman historical spots, thanks to the animations and videos created by D-wok. Italian automobile elements, such as the Alfa Romeo in which Norina arrives, or the Vespa used by many of the extras, evoke the atmosphere of film classics. Meanwhile, Gianluca Falaschi designed elegant costumes perfectly suited to the cinematographic environment, with the men in dark gray suits and Norina, who in this production is a dressmaker, wearing colorful but elegant dresses.
Livermore’s stage direction – except for some specific gags – is weak for comedy. He is definitely talented at doing drama but in comedy he has an area of ​​opportunity. For some reason he has been entrusted with staging the Prima della Scala in “Macbeth,” “Tosca” and “Attila,” all dramas or tragedies, no comedy.
An extremely notable dramaturgical element directed by Livermore is that during the overture he narrates, via actors, the young life of Don Pasquale. The curtain rises at the funeral of Pasquale’s mother, after hugging those who offer her condolences, and he sits in a chair to remember his life since he was a child. The fact that the public sees how young Pasquale, while growing up, tries to conquer girls, young ladies and women, and all attempts are ruined by his overprotective mother makes us understand his story. Livermore humanizes the old rogue, to the point that in the first minutes of the show we feel empathy for him. Without a doubt, this element was a great stage success.

The Musical Disappointment

The overture anticipated an extraordinary performance from a musical point of view, since only at this moment did Evelino Pidò show total control of the orchestra and a correct development of the bel canto style. However, as the overture ended, it seemed that another conductor had taken the podium. Pidò became erratic and unrecognizable, proposing tempi completely out of style that only managed to exhibit the singers’ shortcomings. There was virtually no interesting nuance, zero coherence in the fast tempos, and with a ridiculously high volume he impetuously covered the singers for almost the entire performance. Equally errant was the Teatro alla Scala Orchestra, confused by the schizophrenic baton of the Turin director. His performance in the pit earned him loud boos at the end of the performance from the mercilessloggione.
Ambrogio Maestri offered a convincing Don Pasquale both scenically and vocally. The north Italian baritone showed his vast experience in this role, playing the classic old miser, but with deep humanity. Instead of presenting a fairy tale character, Maestri showed us a lonely and melancholic man, whose actions justified by his past. Unfortunately, the powerful volume of the orchestra made his voice almost inaudible on several occasions. Despite this, his middle register was very good, although he presented slight difficulties in the treble register. During the aria Un foco insolito, Maestri was almost inaudible (because of Pido), but he carried the aria forward with physical comedy; but what he was most applauded for was his performance at the end of the opera for his physical gags while accepting the young couple sitting on a swing.
For his part, Lawrence Brownlee in the role of Ernesto was not entirely convincing. The Ohio tenor, possessor of a fine voice and elegance in phrasing, showed weakness in the performance. His timbre is too light and his volume insufficient for a theater like the Scala, making his treble go unnoticed. We were eagerly awaiting one of the most beautiful arias in the tenor repertoire, Com’e gentil la notte a mezzo april, which passed without pain or glory, since it did not generate any emotion, coupled with the fact that we were left waiting for the high note finale. However, it must be recognized that its Italian pronunciation is praiseworthy.
On the other hand, Andrea Carroll as Norina did not have the best night. Although she showed great confidence on stage, some technical and projection difficulties obscured her nice acting performance. Despite having a small voice with a nice color and a careful Italian pronunciation, her high register was unsupported and without fiato. Her coloraturas in the cabaletta “So anch’io la virtù magica” were not clean, which unfortunately earned her boos from the loggione at the end of the show.

The one who had the greatest public acceptance was the friendly Dottore Malatesta created by Mattia Olivieri. The Italian baritone, despite being slightly overacted at times, carried out the role with courage. With a polite vocality, it is his charisma he won the affection of the public. Possessing a beautiful central register and an elegant singing line, he was always confident and brilliant, his version of Bella siccome un angelo was sparkling and attractive. In the role of the notary, Andrea Porta stood out for his physical comedy, rather than for his voice, a good support element for the soloists. Likewise, as was the Choir of the Teatro alla Scala, who, directed by Alberto Malazzi, masterfully performed the nice choral piece: Che interminabile andirivieni!


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