Don Pasquale is among the last of Donizetti’s sixty-six completed
operas. After the successful premiere of Linda di Chamounix
in Vienna in May 1842 (see review).
Donizetti made his way to Milan, hoping to get a new libretto
for a comic opera for Paris. He actually started on a work called
‘Ne m’oubliez pas’ (do not forget me) before abandoning it when
he got the commission to write a comic opera for the Théâtre Italien.
Giovanni Ruffini, an Italian political exile living in Paris,
wrote the libretto based on a previous opera by Pavesi. Donizetti
was not happy with Ruffini’s verses and made changes of his own
to the extent that his librettist refused to attach his name to
the printed libretto. The composer also had problems with the
singers, particularly Antonio Tamberini, the carded Malatesta,
who insisted on the role being enlarged at the expense of the
title role to be sung by the redoubtable Luigi Lablache. In the
end Donizetti boasted that he composed the work in a mere eleven
days. Certainly the music has pace and fleet felicity of melodic
invention. The opera was a resounding success and within months
was produced all over Europe reaching America in January 1845.
Don Pasquale, if not quite the equal of L’Elisir d’Amore
and Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, is one of the
three most popular Italian comic operas.
As befits its status,
Don Pasquale was recorded in the early electric recording
days with Tito Schipa as Ernesto, a favourite role (EMI). In
more recent years a 1982 Kingsway Hall recording conducted by
Riccardo Muti has dominated (EMI). It features Mirella Freni
as a full-toned but flexible Norina, Gösta Winbergh as a mellifluous
Ernesto; Leo Nucci and Sesto Bruscantini manoeuvre and spark
patter off each other as Pasquale and Malatesta. The Muti performance
lasts 122 minutes, even with the conductor’s brisk tempi, compared
with the 106 more leisurely minutes on this DG issue. The difference
is due to standard theatre cuts plus other abbreviations, presumably
to allow 52 minutes of the comic Il campanello di notte to
complete two well-filled CDs.
Apart from the leisurely
conducting of Ettore Gracis (CD 1 tr. 1) the only common casting
between the recordings, made in different Italian provincial
theatres in the same month, is that of the bass Alfredo Mariotti.
His rather gritty but strong voice is heard as Don Pasquale
and also as the apothecary in Il campanello di notte.
His voice is easily distinguishable from Mario Basiola as Malatesta
in the first opera and Alberto Rinaldi in the second. Mariotti
and Basiola patter as only native Italians can in Cheti,
cheti and Aspetta, aspetta, cara sposina (CD 2 trs
5-6) where they are well supported by the conductor. As Norina
I found Anna Maccianti’s quick vibrato and rather thin tweety
tone a drawback, although she has a nice trill (CD 1 trs. 8-9).
The real vocal star of this Don Pasquale is Ugo Benelli
as Ernesto. From his opening recitative and duet with Pasquale
(CD 1 trs. 5-6) via an elegantly phrased rendition of Com’e
gentil (CD 2 tr. 8), his contribution exudes vocal taste
and class. His tone and phrasing are ideally weighted whilst
his legato and variety of colour and expression are excellent.
di notte is Donizetti’s forty-sixth opera. It was the first
of a duo of one-act comedies the composer wrote to his own verses
in June and August 1836. Both were well received. Il campanello
is a typical buffa comedy with more situations than plot.
It concerns the marriage of Don Annibale Pistacchio, an apothecary,
to the young Serafina who is loved by her cousin Enrico who
she has forsaken because of his womanising. Under Naples law,
a pharmacist was required to prescribe whatever medicines were
required at whatever hour of the day or night. In order to thwart
the consummation of the marriage, the jealous Enrico turns up
throughout the marriage night in varying disguises, rings the
apothecary’s bell (Il campanello) and demands treatment for
himself or an imaginary wife.
Whilst there is
no singer of Ugo Benelli’s class in this performance of Il
campanello di notte, neither are there any duffers. As Don
Annibale Alfredo Mariotti sings strongly (CD 2 trs. 12-13) as
does the baritone Alberto Rinaldo as the devious Enrico (CD
2 trs. 15 and 17). Their duet Mi signore venerato! (CD
2 tr. 21) with its quick patter singing is a highlight of the
work and this performance. Average provincial Italian singers
sing Serafina and her mother. Native Italians, fully conversant
with the nuances of the language, relishing the humour of the
words and marrying them to the music, are the strengths of both
In both operas the
recording places the singers well forward in a rather dry acoustic
that enables the excellent diction of the singers to shine out.
By the most modern standards the recording lacks some presence
and atmosphere. Personally I prefer that to the approach on
the over-egged contemporaneous Decca recording of Don Pasquale
conducted by Istvan Kertész (not currently available). With
the Sony recording of Il campanello di notte with Agnes
Baltsa as Serafina and Enzo Dara as the apothecary also not
available, this welcome issue provides a good introduction to
two of Donizetti’s lighter compositions and at bargain price.
Robert J Farr