Deceptive Seduction: Donizetti's 'Don Pasquale'

From Houston Grand Opera

THE HIT SINGLE

In a the first act aria "Quel guardo il cavaliere," Norina reads a silly, romantic story, and reflects on her own talent for seduction. This recording is by soprano Angela Gheorgiu.

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The B Side

Early in Act One, Doctor Malatesta describes the young bride he's supposedly found for Pasquale, in the popular aria "Bella siccome un angelo" — "Beautiful as an angel." Bryn Terfel sings it in this recording from a Grammy-winning CD.

Audio is no longer available

Creative artists react in different ways to fame and fortune. Some take the riches they've earned, lie back contentedly, then disappear from the spotlight. Others keep right on plugging perhaps because their creative instincts are too strong to ignore, or maybe fearing their muse will soon depart and they'd better take advantage while they still can.

"Don Pasquale" at Houston Grand Opera

John Del Carlo (left) sings the title role in Houston Grand Opera's Don Pasquale, with Norman Rheinhardt (right) as Ernesto and Jon Kolbet as the Notary. Brett Coomer/Houston Grand Opera hide caption

itoggle caption Brett Coomer/Houston Grand Opera

Consider three of history's most wildly successful opera composers: Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Verdi. All three had so many hits, so quickly, that they might well have decided on early retirement and two of them took that option.

Faced with changing musical tastes, nearly universal admiration and a fat bank account, Verdi first slowed his pace a bit, and then took about a decade off before a brief comeback in his 70s that resulted in Otello and Falstaff, two of his greatest works. Verdi wound up with a catalog of about 28 operas, give or take a revision or two.

Rossini finished William Tell, his 39th opera, in 1829. Then he settled into a comfortable retirement and lived nearly 40 more years without ever writing another one.

Donizetti was another story. He was also a spectacular success; there was a time during his career when one of every four operas performed in Italy was his, and his fortune was clearly made. But unlike Verdi and Rossini, Donizetti kept right on going. He composed until the bitter end, when his health finally failed him, reaching a total of more than 60 operas, ranging from stark tragedy to brilliant comedy.

By most counts, Don Pasquale was Donizetti's 64th opera. He wrote it in barely more than two weeks. It was an instant hit at its world premiere in Paris, in 1843, and within a few months the opera also had been heard in Milan, Vienna and London. By 1846 it had traveled all the way to New York City, where it was performed in English.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Don Pasquale, a true masterpiece from Donizetti's lighter side, in a production from Houston Grand Opera. Soprano Heidi Stober stars as the sly young woman Norina, with baritone John Del Carlo as the opera's overbearing, yet somehow loveable title character.

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The Story of 'Don Pasquale'

John Del Carlo as Don Pasquale

Baritone John Del Carlo stars in the title role of Don Pasquale, from Houston Grand Opera. Brett Coomer/Houston Grand Opera hide caption

itoggle caption Brett Coomer/Houston Grand Opera

WHO'S WHO?

  • John Del Carlo ...... Don Pasquale
  • Heidi Stober .................... Norina
  • Norman Reinhardt ........... Ernesto
  • Brian Leerhuber ............ Malatesta
  • Jon Kolbet .......................Notary
  • Houston Grand Opera Orchestra
  • Patrick Summers, conductor

ACT ONE begins in Don Pasquale's home. He's a rich old bachelor and has just had a quarrel with Ernesto, his nephew and heir. Ernesto is in love with Norina, who is young and beautiful — but poor. Pasquale wants Ernesto to marry an old, rich woman instead. When Ernesto balks at this, Pasquale is furious and threatens to disinherit him. Pasquale decides he should get married himself, and father a more suitable heir than Ernesto, but at his age he's not sure he's up to the challenge. So, he summons an old friend, Dr. Malatesta, and solicits advice. Malatesta pretends to sympathize, but he actually thinks Pasquale is a fool and resolves to teach the old geezer a lesson.

Malatesta proposes that Pasquale marry a lovely, convent-educated woman named Sofronia — who is supposedly Malatesta's own sister. Pasquale agrees and begins making arrangements. When Ernesto gets wind of this, he laughs in Pasquale's face. Pasquale orders Ernesto to move out of the house immediately.

Meanwhile, Malatesta visits Norina, and the two discuss the plot they're about to hatch on the unsuspecting Pasquale.

At the start of ACT TWO, back in Pasquale's house, Ernesto is in a quandary. He can't afford to marry Norina without his uncle's money and thinks he has no choice but to leave the country. When Ernesto leaves, Malatesta shows up with the disguised Norina, presenting her to Pasquale as Sofronia. She's wearing a veil and seems modest and innocent, much to Pasquale's delight. A notary shows up — actually Malatesta's cousin, also in disguise. Malatesta dictates the marriage contract, which makes Pasquale's new bride the mistress of his house and co-owner of all his posessions.

The proceedings are interrupted when Ernesto returns to have one last go at changing his uncle's mind. Ernesto is startled when he recognizes the disguised Norina, but Malatesta explains the secret without tipping off Pasquale. Ernesto agrees to witness the contract, and all the parties affix their signatures.

Before the ink is dry, "Sofronia" undergoes a spectacular transformation — changing from a blushing girl to a demanding shrew. Shrilly, she insists on a private carriage, more servants and a top-to-bottom renovation of the house — and she demands that Ernesto be kept on as her personal escort.

As ACT THREE begins, Don Pasquale is wallowing in bills for extravagances ordered by his new wife. Sofronia enters, dressed to the nines. She says she's going to the theater with Ernesto and suggests that it's past Pasquale's bedtime. When Pasquale protests, she slaps him and storms out. But on her way she drops a note on the floor — seemingly by accident. Pasquale picks it up and reads it in shock — it's a letter arranging a tryst with her lover for that very evening. Pasquale promptly sends for Dr. Malatesta, not realizing that the good doctor has been in on the scheme all along. Malatesta arrives to find Pasquale looking down and out. The two plan to spy on Sofronia's secret assignation and catch her in the act.

That evening, in the garden, a diguised Ernesto plays the role of Sofronia's lover and sings her a serenade. Suddenly, Pasquale and Malatesta jump out of the bushes. Ernesto escapes, and Sofronia insists to her enraged husband that no one else has been with her. Malatesta then takes charge. He reassures Pasquale, saying he has a plan to get rid of Sofronia for good and calls for Ernesto.

Malatesta tells Sofronia that Ernesto is going to marry Norina, who will then move in and take charge of the household. Sofronia is outraged, but the plan sounds fine to the befuddled Pasquale. He's desperate to be rid of Sofronia and promptly agrees to annul his own marriage. Too late, he discovers he has been duped. Sofronia is really Norina, and she is now free to marry Ernesto. Still, Pasquale is so happy to be done with his shrewish wife that he gives his blessing to the new couple. In the end, everyone agrees that when an old man marries a young woman, he's surely asking for trouble.

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