Strong cast buoys Met’s “Don Pasquale”
It might not be completely fair to expect Don Pasquale to offer an experience of serious depth. The last hurrah of opera buffa, Donizetti’s operatic farce is a charming enough confection, though to call it a comedic masterstroke would be a little generous.
Friday’s season premiere at the Metropolitan Opera turned out to a showcase for individual singers more than a cohesive operatic performance, which is admittedly exciting in its own way.
Ambrogio Maestri filled the title role on Friday, though he seemed almost to be reprising his masterful turn as Falstaff, another great would-be libertine, from several season ago. Not that that’s a complaint–Maestri relished his role as the bumbling lech, finding in his comic quest after a woman one-third his age nuanced moments of surprising pathos. There is a jovial, avuncular quality to his voice that makes him impossible not to like.
Where Maestri’s voice is a rich, full-bodied Bordeaux, Javier Camarena’s is a far lighter, more peppery red. The Mexican tenor has become a house favorite in the past several seasons, and with good reason: there is an irresistible thrill in his singing, showing the taut tone, bright ping, and fiery intensity that set apart the truly great leggiero tenors.
There were admittedly some minor cracks in his armor on Friday as Ernesto: in his sighing Act II aria “Chercherò lontana terra” there was a little roughness around the edges of his middle voice and his pitch wandered ever so slightly. He more than made up for any doubts, though, with crowd-slaying high notes, particularly the spectacular, shining high D-flat that he hit at the end of the aria and held for six seconds at least.
As his beloved Norina, Eleonora Buratto made one of the more memorable debuts of the Met season so far. She has a voice of beautiful, cool color and pinpoint focus that shoots into the house. The part didn’t seem to be quite a snug fit for her: she threw in loads of adventurous ornamentation and in fact at times seemed to be pushing herself a bit too much. After an impressive cadenza in “So anch’io la virtù magica” she seemed slightly short of breath as she approached the stretto at the end of the aria. Yet there was a perfect coquettish charm about her, even if she tended to attack high notes a little too aggressively.
Levente Molnár took some time to warm up as the scheming Doctor Malatesta, sounding especially gravelly in his early work; a powerful top, though, was evident right from the start, and by the middle of the third act he was sporting a rich lyric tone. He even gave the usually quick-tongued Maestri a run for his money in the patter department, as the two of them delivered the comic highlight of the evening in the nimbly turned duet “Aspetta, aspetta, cara sposina.”
For Maurizio Benini, the company’s go-to conductor for bel canto comedies, it was business as usual. His work on Friday was supremely competent, and yet largely nondescript–there was not much vigor to be heard, even in the crashing, galloping overture, and his tempos in some later scenes felt sepulchral.
There is nothing particularly riveting about Otto Schenk’s 2006 staging, reasonably attractive though it is. Don Pasquale’s townhouse is, like the man himself, a vision of decayed splendor, while Norina’s sun deck, set in front of terra cotta rooftops stretching to the horizon, seems an hommage to Franco Zeffirelli’s famous Parisian garret.
This is the sort of production that relies heavily on the energy of all parties on stage, and in that regard Friday’s premiere was underwhelming. Though individual performers like Maestri seemed very much alive and invested in their characters, the physical comedy was mostly limp and scenes were strictly but unimaginatively blocked by director J. Knighten Smit. The handsy choreography visited upon the chorus might have been lifted directly out of a middle-school musical.
Still, a handful of moments of sincerity in Friday’s premiere left hope that this cast might warm to each other as the run continues. The love duet between Norina and Ernesto in Act III was enchanting, the two voices nesting perfectly in each other, and the scene lovingly and simply acted. At any rate, the quality of the singing was the primary attraction on Friday, and the roaring ovation at the curtain (perhaps the loudest at the Met this year) was well deserved. Hopefully the enthusiastic response will provide the incentive to find a little more life in the comedy.
Don Pasquale runs through March 18 at the Metropolitan Opera. Alexey Lavrov will sing the role of Malatesta on March 18. metopera.org