by Sam Juliano
This is the fifth season of HD broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera house in Manhattan aired to destinations worldwide. For disciples of the form who reside in the shadows of this famed institution, a quandary remains as whether an appearance at the Met is still preferable to a visit to a local movie house to take in the well-embellished movie screen presentation. While for opera purists with deep pockets the choice remains a no-brainer, there are some compelling issues in the mix here that are making a decision of preference progressively difficult. With eleven Saturday afternoon broadcasts on the schedule for 2010-11, (with Wednesday evening encores in place for each opera) the present season offers more titles than any to date, leaving only a smattering of ‘must-see’ operas that aren’t on the HD schedule. Obviously, for those who can afford it, the ideal compromise would be to attend the eleven broadcasta, and purchase some tickets at the Met for several operas not being offered on HD. Bt for those who don’t have that luxury, the matter of opera purity is quickly becoming a non-concern. The astonishing popularity of the broadcasts -many theatres have reported sellouts months in advance- has inspired executive at the Metropolitan Opera to give the viewers many “extras” unavailable to those attending the events in person. These include interviews with the stars and behind-the-scenes craftsmen bewteen acts, capsule summaries of the opera from a regular host, and the backstage maneuverings of carpenters and set designers. In addition -and most critically- the company’s cameramen are able to capture vital close-ups, while maintaining a mid-range stage picture, that is preferable to nearly every in house vantage point, save for those blessed with orchestra seats near the stage.
Seats at the Metropolitan Opera have gone through the roof price-wise, and those with intentions of seeing multiple operas during the season (I held partial season tickets for eight years at a time when prices were more manageable) are invariably forced to avail themselves of $20 standing room orchestra seats, which always results in a daunting demonstration of stamina, as most operas run between three and four hours. In addition to the discomfort, one must negotiate his vision between a rectangular stage view (which is compromised by the overhead mezzanine balcony) and the subtitles that are electronially projected on a small screen on the leaning post ahead. (For those with actual seats, the titles are to be accessed on the back of the seat ahead). What it all comes down to is this: Should one sacrifice personal comfort, viewing and listening difficulties, fascianting bonuses, and complete artistic immersion for the sake of “purity.” The answer seems clear enough now for all but the most obstinate. The HD presentation is the way to go for true opera lovers whose appreciation for the glorious art form is always being compromised at a place only convenient now for those in the highest tax brackets. Even with endowments and generous contributions from millionaire patrons the Met has priced itself well out of the range of both the casual fan and the most passionate area opera buffs. Anyone who prefers to be at the Met is ignoring the intrinsic worth and inobstrusive purity of the theatrical screen experience, seen in full comfort with optimum audio and video. Opera may be at its essence a consumate joy for those in the building, but it’s also a rat race, marred by spiralling costs and all kind of obstacles to the immersive experience that informs it’s finest interpretations.
In any case, the Met’s present production of Gaetano Donizetti’s beloved comedy masterpiece Don Pasquale is a treasure to behold in both the opera house or the HD movie screen, and all the glories of it’s comic charm, flowing bel canto lyricism and romantic allure are beautifully conveyed in a first-rate production. Renowned opera director and set-designer Otto Schenk introduced this production in 2006, delighting fans eager to experience a staging after a 20 year absence at the house. With Maestro James Levine conducting this work for the first time in his career and a distinguished cast including John Del Carlo (as Don Pasquale), Anna Netrebko (as Norina) and Matthew Polenzani (as Ernesto) this production can stand with the best of this opera worldwide, and it makes for a more than worthy transmition for those hankering to indulge in what the composer called a ‘drama buffo.’ By any standard of measurement Don Pasquale is one of a quartet of widely regarded masterworks by one of opera’s most prolific artists. Donizetti authored 75 operas in a twelve year span, and he is said to have admitted that he completed some in the space of a few weeks. His masterpiece is Lucia de Lamermoor, a tragic opera loosely based on Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor, while L’elisir d’amore, La Fille du regiment and Don Pasquale have never vacated the stage for over 150 years. Furthermore, Maria Stuarda, Lucrezia Borgia and Anna Bolena and a few others receive productions regularly in opera houses around the world. With Vincenzo Bellini and Giochino Rossini, Donizetti is one of the great trio of bell canto composers, hence of one Italy’s finest writers of music in any capacity.
Donizetti reached the pinnacle of his popularity in the years immediately following his death in 1848 (at the age of 51) when it is said that one of every four opera stagings in Italy was of a work he wrote. In the last deacdes of the nineteenth century his reputation plummeted, with critics and musicologists making claim that his operas were “facile and imitative.” (of seventhteenth and eighteenth century comic buffas.) However, after the second World War, a major reassessment rightfully reasserted the composer as a titan of world music, and a formidable figure in the development of Italian opera. Without question it is difficult to conceive of the phenomenon of Verdi without the foundation stone of Donizetti’s work, who provided the even greater composer with the profound melodrama that was taken to even loftier heights.
Don Pasquale is the last of the golden tradition of opera buffa of the first half of the 19th Century to remain in the international repetoire. Designed for the principal quartet of the “Theatre-Italien” the opera has a concentration and comic sweep, humanized by touches of Donizettian pathos, that sets it in a class by itself. It is said that at this point in his busy, occasionally frantic career Donizetti had accumulated a background of practical theatrical experience unmatched by that of any of his rivals, and this experience in combination with his musical talent produced a work whose freshness has never faltered. In the light of this schievement, it is difficult to realize that before the year was out the illness that would both dim his mental capacites and claim his life, would manifest itself.
The story is bare and simple: A corpulent old bachelor wants to marry a much younger and pretty young thing, and after a number of often exasperating admissions and a purposely convoluted plot line that involves some mistaken identities, the elder man blesses the union of the pretty one with a handsome young tenor. It invariably ends as an exceedingly delighful evening at the opera for the young at heart. The homogenous score includes a sparkling overture (which Maestro Levine nevigated with a spirited tempo and typically textured and rousing flourishes that quotes several themes that appear later in the opera -most notably Ernesto’s Act II serenade and Norina’s self-analyzing aria from Act I.) Malestesta’s aria in the opening scene, “Bella siccome un angelo’, in which he describes the charms of his mythical sister, is a fine example of bel canto irony. The high spirits of the work are neatly epitomized in the duet for Norina and Mallatesta that closes Act I, wherein he coaches her in the part she must play to bamboozle Pasquale. Act II, with its unflagging buildup to a hilarious climax, which is for many the summit of Donizetti’s achievement here. Act III contains its own share of riches in three irrestible duets and an apt finale to point the moral of the piece: that December should not tempt fate with May. Instead of the traditional secco recitative, the connective passages are string-accompanied. The mid-point finale is a solo quartet without choral reinforcement; indeed, the chorus appears only in the two scenes of Act III.
Schenk’s comparatively spare sets include typical Italian interiors with a backround (winding staircase) and a luminous noctural balcony centerpiece that properly don’t overwhelm the spirited comedy and the stellar singers being showcased. As the shrewish young lady-turned vixen, Ms. Netrebko admitted in a between act interview that she relished playing a ‘character who didn’t die.’ Her rich, crystal-clear and resonant interpretation was a contrast to De Carlo’s crusty and lecherous title character (albeit audience sympathy increases with his domination by Norina.) The baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is smooth and animated as Mallatesta, while Matthew Polenzani’s glowing and often soaring lyricism injects the work with an indellible romantic underpinning.
When charm and passion is in great abandance, the chemistry always results in a winning combination. The Met’s production of Don Pasquale is a contagious mix of timing and effervescence.