Beverly Sills bid farewell to the Met in this 1978 Don Pasquale as we say farewell to Gabriel Bacquier in 2020

United StatesUnited States Donizetti, Don Pasquale: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Nicola Rescigno (conductor). 11.1.1979 performance reviewed as Nightly Met Opera Stream on 5.7.2020. (JPr)

The Metropolitan Opera’s Don Pasquale

Production – John Dexter
Designer – Desmond Heeley
Lighting designer – Gil Wechsler
TV Director – Kirk Browning

Don Pasquale – Gabriel Bacquier
Norina – Beverly Sills
Ernesto – Alfredo Kraus
Dr. Malatesta – Håkan Hagegård
Notary – Nico Castel

I make no apologies for recycling the following recent background information that is entirely appropriate for this 1979 performance seen as a Nightly Met Opera Stream.

If anyone has never seen an opera, then Don Pasquale — composed by Gaetano Donizetti in apparently 11 days and first performed in 1843 — should be a perfect one to go to first. It is not grand nor overblown and is clearly the musical forerunner of the operettas of Johann Strauss II and Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as, many Broadway musical comedies. With opera on the cusp of verismoDon Pasquale is generally considered as being the last great nineteenth-century opera buffa.

Don Pasquale is a miserly 70-year-old bachelor who disinherits and throws his nephew, Ernesto, out of his house for refusing to marry the women he had chosen for him. Ernesto is in love with a poor young widow Norina. Determined to have an heir of his own Pasquale asks his friend Doctor Malatesta to find him a wife. The doctor arranges for him to marry his sister, the demure Sofronia fresh out of a convent, who will be Norina in disguise. This charade becomes a secret conspiracy between Malatesta, Norina and – after some initial confusion – Ernesto. Immediately having married Pasquale, ‘Sofronia’ becomes a harridan, spurns Pasquale’s advances, humiliates him, and due to her lavish lifestyle, the bills begin mount up and eat into Pasquale’s fortune. Don Pasquale is at his wits end, but he eventually discovers who this ‘Sofronia’ truly is when Malatesta reveals that his real sister is still in the convent. Norina and Ernesto can now be together at last; all are reconciled, and the opera ends with the moral of the story which is not to marry in old age.

John Dexter’s 1978 Don Pasquale at the Met was conceived as a vehicle for Beverly Sills’s farewell performances there. Sills retired from the stage shortly afterwards to become general director of New York City Opera. Perhaps there were issues that caused Sills to retire as she was not yet 50, an age when singers in 2020 are at their prime. Filmed long before high-definition this 41-year-old taping has not aged well, and the colours were muted and the orchestral sound often rather dull (at least as I saw and heard it). However, once again it remains a fascinating record of opera in (debatably better?) years gone by.

Dexter’s stylish production seemed more suitable for The Merry Widow or Der Rosenkavalier than Don Pasquale. The frontcloths and general rococo ambience of Desmond Heeley’s very picturesque designs suggested fin de siècle Italy (Rome?). With an elegantly dressed Norina shown during Act I reclining – and fondling her cigarillo(?) holder – in her wicker chair on a charming trellised veranda, she hardly looked like a ‘poor young widow’. We had earlier been introduced to Don Pasquale as a lepidopterist with dodgy pince-nez. Pasquale’s inordinate fondness for his butterfly specimens could perhaps be regarded as Dexter’s only real directorial tinkering. Though ‘Sofronia’ exclaims Pasquale’s house is ‘so shabby’ it hardly seems it actually needs a makeover, rather just a good clean. Kirk Browning’s TV direction presented the opera quite straightforwardly except for some intriguing ‘split screen’ techniques to bring – otherwise socially-distanced! – characters together for their significant duet, trio, or quartet.

Once again, the feature of this 1979 Don Pasquale which cannot be ignored is how the cast featured four superb singing actors. What was so different about performance practice in past years that is difficult to replicate in 2020? There was again the naturalness to the singing and acting – rarely seen now – that has been so noticeable in most of these vintage Met operas I have been watching recently; or is this a case of rose-tinted spectacles? Were singers more gifted (possibly) or better prepared (probably)? Of course, it would be unlikely in 2020 to have three of the cast of Don Pasquale circling 50, so experience might have something to do with their greater assurance on stage.

Audience favourite – and very smiley – Beverly Sills seemed to enjoy herself as Norina/’Sofronia’ whilst never singing far from the front of the stage. I will leave it to others who know more than me whether Sills embellished her vocal performance as much as some do. Nevertheless, there was a cultured trill in her opening ‘So anch’io la virtù magica’ and she made a credible nagging shrew after ‘marriage’ to Pasquale. When ‘Sofronia’ scolded him with the merest whack on his face with her closed fan Sills’s face registered genuine distress at the hurt she had caused him. I never saw Sills ‘live’ but I certainly did see Alfredo Kraus give a wonderful performance as Faust in 1983 and it was pleasure to experience his serious – somewhat nerdy we would say today – portrayal of a bespectacled Ernesto who enters in Act I wearing a Sherlock Holmes-like tweed hunting coat. Though what a voice! His second act lament ‘Cercherò lontana terra’ was heartfelt, meltingly lyrical, and remarkable for its gracefully caressed lines. Kraus’s tenor voice perhaps was slightly more nasally than is the ‘taste’ today but just listen – if you get the chance – to ‘Com’è gentil’ and his love duet with Norina (‘Tornami a dir che m’ami’) near the end of Don Pasquale – for breath control and refinement unmatched today.

I saw Gabriel Bacquier as Doctor Bartolo in The Barber of Seville at Covent Garden in 1979 but have no worthwhile recollection of that but this Don Pasquale is a fitting tribute to this fine French baritone who sadly died a couple of months ago. I did see Geraint Evans as a memorable Pasquale at Covent Garden in 1983 and would say that Bacquier was undoubtedly every bit his equal, high praise indeed! Bacquier was similarly blessed with great dramatic instincts and his Pasquale was less of a buffoon and more human; an oddly charismatic, nuanced, totally believable, old rogue who is full of deluded self-importance. The fun is in seeing his pomposity pricked and so the comedy – in these safe hands – doesn’t seem as mean as it might on other occasions.

Håkan Hagegård was a suave and raffishly handsome Doctor Malatesta particularly when in top hat and tails near the end of the opera. Both Hagegård and Bacquier excel in the quick-fire patter Donizetti demands of them which tripped off their combined tongues with practiced ease during ‘Aspetta, aspetta, cara sposina’. At this point in the opera, Pasquale believing Malatesta – who is always on hand for heart medication – to be his ally, conspire to expose a planned assignation between ‘Sofronia’ and Ernesto.

The chorus get little to sing in this opera but make the most of ‘Che interminabile andirivieni!’ their entertaining commentary in Act III about all the shenanigans they have been witnessing. Though the singing came across well enough in this video I am not sure conductor Nicola Rescigno and orchestra were heard to their best advantage, despite many distinguished moments such as the beautifully played trumpet solo during the prelude to the second act. Certainly, the overture did not sound very bright nor particularly lively, and truthfully, the opera did get off to a rather sluggish start but later cheered up immensely and provided solid support for the comic action and all the singing, with Rescigno even chasing along the spirited Act II closing quartet.

Jim Pritchard

For more about Nightly Met Opera Streams click here.

Leave a Comment