I finally saw “Don Pasquale” at the movies last week, and found Otto Schenk’s grandly realistic production to be charming and effective. It must be said that the opera does not belong to the soprano or the tenor, but rather to the baritone and bass as they have more stage time and the better numbers. Granted, when Anna Netrebko is in the cast, it’s hard to steal the show, but Mariusz Kwiecien (as Dr. Malatesta) and John Del Carlo (as Pasquale) pulled it off with aplomb.
"Don Pasquale" concerns the title character, a crotchety old Don, and his decision to take a new wife. Little does Pasquale realize that his new wife, Norina, is secretly working with his doctor, Malatesta, and his nephew, Ernesto, to teach the old buffoon a lesson. Within minutes of signing the marriage contract, Pasquale’s sweet, young wife (Sofronia who is actually Norina) quickly morphs into a belligerent, big-spending shrew, turning his life (and house) upside down. After some great music and comic hijinks, all ends happily with Ernesto and Norina united in love and Pasquale having learned a valuable lesson.
The real standout of the evening was the dashing baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. He sang with robust, burnished sound and was equal parts dashing and comic as the scheming Dr. Malatesta. Why the Met isn’t mounting other Bel Canto gems for this exciting young artist, I’ll never know. Jon Del Carlo’s performance as the aging Don Pasquale was a full-throttle, comedic tour de force. One of the greatest singing actors I’ve ever seen, Mr. Del Carlo played up the Don’s obvious doltishness while still engaging the audience’s sympathy. That he managed to toss off Donizetti’s rapid-fire patter songs with uncanny ease made the performance all the more astounding.
For once, the evening didn’t necessarily belong to Anna Netrebko, but she nevertheless made an impression. The production was mounted for her in 2006, and she’s even better in its first revival. Netrebko sang with a rich womanly sound, gleaming top notes, and melting legato, shaping Donizetti’s phrases with an impressively conversational quality. More importantly, this was some of her finest acting to date. Norina is a role Ms. Netrebko clearly relishes, and her scenes with Mariusz Kwiecien were spellbinding. If anyone wants to see what sexual chemistry looks like, they should buy a DVD of this broadcast. Norina and Malatesta’s duets had an electricity that all but threatened to stop the show. The two of them so thoroughly oozed sexuality, that Norina’s romance with Ernesto seemed almost implausible.
Matthew Polanzani, the sweet-voiced American tenor, was saddled with the unenviable task of singing Ernesto (a wind-up canary of a part). Mr. Polanzani managed to be sympathetic and pitiable as the love-struck young man, but there was no chance of him standing out in the midst of such lively company. The evening reached it’s apex during Pasquale and Malatesta’s rapid-fire duet, “Cheti, cheti immantinente,” which has more words than the whole of “Tristan und Isolde,” and requires the singers to spit them out at lightening speed. Indeed, the frenzied ovation that Kwiecien and Del Carlo received led to a thrilling encore.
But this was really Mr. Kwiecien’s show. His smoldering good looks, creamy voice, and magnetic stage presence endow him with all the makings of a bonafide Met star. If Peter Gelb knows what’s good for him, he will stage more opera’s for Mr. Kwiecien. Between Anna Netrebko and him, they are the only two stars generating the kind of charisma and excitement that is vital to opera. Now if only more Metropolitan opera performances could match the level of this season’s ”Don Pasquale”…