A scene from Arizona Opera’s 2015 production of Don Pasquale. The same production design will be used in Minnesota Opera’s upcoming production of the same opera. Photo by Ed Flores.
For an opera that people thought was going to be a failure, Don Pasquale (1843) certainly has done very well for itself. Today, it is perennially one of the most performed operas in the world and the third-most popular of Donizetti’s 66 operas (the others are L’elisir d’amore [“The Elixir of Love”; #1] and Lucia di Lammermoor [#2]). It is also, quite simply, one of the most popular comic operas written in Italian.
No one was more convinced that Don Pasquale would fail than its librettist Giovanni Ruffini, an exiled Italian revolutionary living in Paris. Ruffini had been an early compatriot of Giuseppe Garibaldi, had gotten involved in some unsuccessful intrigues, and had a death sentence waiting for him if he returned to Italy. He was also was more than a little concerned about the opera’s accelerated writing process and quality control. In a letter to his mother, he described his work plainly, stating, “It’s not a question of doing it well or doing it badly, but of doing it fast.”
Ruffini’s pace wasn’t quite fast enough for composer Gaetano Donizetti, who had little time to spare as he revised and directed performances of his own opera Linda di Chamounix for the Théâtre-Italien in Paris. Donizetti began making his own changes to Ruffini’s drafts, which Ruffini found alarming. With just a few months before the opera opened in Paris, the librettist signed over rights to the script on the condition that his name never be associated with it. (When it was printed, the authorship was attributed to the pseudonymous “A.R.”
Although Ruffini had quality control concerns, Donizetti did not share them, and paid Ruffini well for his work – some 500 francs, the rate an experienced librettist would command in a normal arrangement. However, Ruffini’s pessimism was effusive: just a week into rehearsals, two of the four main principals fell ill, causing the opera’s premiere to be postponed. It was a bad omen, musicians whispered, and the opera (which Donizetti had perhaps unwisely boasted was written in just 11 days) would be a failure, they said.
At the same time, Parisian theatre critics were hotly anticipating Don Pasquale, the first new opera buffa by a major composer in years. The genre’s pre-eminent living composer, Luigi Ricci, had been forced to quit composing and take a “regular” job after many years of too-lavish spending and the failure of his own operatic setting of The Marriage of Figaro. Donizetti’s great rival, Giuseppe Verdi, was in his prime but primarily concerned with more serious works. That left the Parisian press looking to Donizetti – who himself had spent the last several years mostly writing for the French-language theatres and their genre requirements – to breathe new life into this operatic cornerstone. The journal Teatri arti e letteratura, writing on the eve of the opera’s premiere, called Don Pasquale “so necessary to Italian theater, which is lacking opere buffe [today].”
Don Pasquale began with an aim of updating the story of Ser Marc’Antonio, an opera with a libretto by Angelo Anelli and music by Stefano Pavesi that had premieredat the Théâtre-Italien some 35 years earlier. A success in its day, Ser Marc’Antonio was revived several times before disappearing from the repertory; it had not been seen in Paris since 1831. Donizetti was drawn to its story of an elderly bachelor and his comic misadventures with love and marriage; as a result, the basic events of Ser Marc’Antonio and Don Pasquale are identical. What Donizetti wanted Ruffini to do – and which Donizetti himself ultimately completed – was to update the story to a contemporary setting and align it with the rhythms of current dramatic tastes.
One of Donizetti and Verdi’s distinguishing traits was that they both composed the music for and directed the premieres of their operas. With Don Pasquale, Donizetti made numerous and frequent direct revisions to the text that drove Ruffini nuts and led to his withdrawing from the project. These were not arbitrary changes, however, and many of Donizetti’s tweaks to the text had musical complements, such as an onstage theme of time ticking away that carries into the orchestra in several passages. Donizetti’s refinements continued late into the rehearsal process – the famous tenor serenade “Com’e gentil”, for example, was added to the production the evening of the final dress rehearsal.
The final story of Don Pasquale focuses on the titular Don Pasquale, an elderly gentleman preparing to disinherit his nephew Ernesto. Ernesto’s wrongdoing is that he turned down an arranged marriage, as his heart already belongs to Norina. Not one to let love get in the way of family duty, Pasquale decides to take a wife and secure the family line himself. Norina and Dr. Malatesta conspire to disabuse Pasquale of his notions, resulting in a situational comedy filled with twists and turns including a fake marriage, false identities, and mistaken assumptions. The final script’s characters and their romantic foibles are clearly modeled on commedia dell’arte‘s stock characters Pantalone, Pierrot, Scapino, and Columbina Modern Story
Donizetti argued strongly – and successfully – that Don Pasquale would be at its funniest in a contemporary setting, rather than some faraway period in the past. Minnesota Opera’s staging of the work sets it in 1950s Hollywood, seizing on the themes of old guard vs. new guard. It has shades of The Artist and Sunset Boulevard, presenting Don Pasquale as a washed-up silent movie star adrift (and over his head) in the new world of filmmaking.
In his director’s notes for Don Pasquale, Chuck Hudson recalled studying commedia del’arte with Marcel Marceau in Paris, as well as the work of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. “Their comic dignity represented the champagne of comedy,” he noted, “as opposed to the stylistic beer of slapstick or vaudeville. Marceau also drilled us in the details of his own comic masterpieces, working the specificity, style, and that elusive skill, comic timing.”
If the librettist and some of the musicians were worried, Donizetti wasn’t. In the end, the composer was vindicated: Don Pasquale was one the Théâtre-Italien’s greatest successes, drawing rave reviews from critics and praise from audiences who came to see it again and again. Requests to produce the opera poured in from around Europe, and most of the stars were engaged for the opera’s London premiere that same year – a rare thing in the 1840s.
Minnesota Opera’s staging of Don Pasquale, which opens October 7 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, reunites a number of familiar faces. Craig Colclough, recently seen as Doristo in last season’s L’arbore di Diana, plays the titular Don Pasquale. Andrew Wilkowske, a veteran of numerous MN Opera productions, returns to bring his expert timing to Dr. Malatesta. David Walton, recently seen as the shepherd Silvio in L’arbore di Diana and as Tybalt in Roméo et Juliette, plays the lovelorn Ernesto. Soprano Susannah Biller played Kitty Packard in last season’s Dinner at Eight and returns as Norina.
The ensemble is rounded out by lyric bass Wm. Clay Thompson [sic] as The Notary and Ian Christiansen as Max. The design team includes Peter Nolle (scenic designer), Kathleen Trott (costume designer), Doug Provost (projection designer), and Thomas C. Hase (lighting designer). Jonathan Brandani, MN Opera’s new Assistant Conductor and an alum of its Resident Artist program, leads the orchestra.
Don Pasquale opens October 7 and plays through October 15 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN.