Donizetti’s Don Pasquale has a dramaturgical problem. The 70-something Pasquale wants to marry and produce heirs, as his young heir-apparent nephew, Ernesto, has refused the arranged marriage proposed for him by his uncle. Pasquale’s doctor, Malatesta has nominated himself as Pasquale’s marriage-broker, but the woman he proposes is Norina, the young widow who is the secret squeeze of Ernesto. Malatesta introduces her to Pasquale in the guise of being his own sister, Sofronia, who has just left a convent. Norina and Malatesta are in cahoots, planning to trick Pasquale into marriage so that she can immediately lay claim to half the rich old man’s property. But they neglect to inform Ernesto of their plot, and chaos ensues.
Dr Malatesta (Nikolay Borchev), Norina (Danielle de Niese) and Don Pasquale (Alessandro Corbelli). Photo credit Clive Barda
The problem: What is Malatesta’s motive? In the production that has just opened at Glyndebourne, directed by Miriame Clément, designed by Julia Hansen and conducted superbly by Enrique Mazzola (with a spectacular cast) the suggestion is that Malatesta (played as an attractive young man by Nikolay Borchev) fancies Norina himself. She is sung and acted in a magnificent performance by Danielle de Niese (who is in real life the wife of the hereditary chairman of Glyndebourne, Gus Christie). She appears at least to tolerate, and possibly to welcome, Malatesta’s attentions. This simply raises the further question, why then does she finally marry Ernesto? Is she polyandrously inclined? Or just marrying Ernesto for the money he’ll inherit from Pasquale (and the 4,000-ducat annuity till Pasquale’s death)? Fickle or gold-digger? Great though it is, Ms de Niese’s thrillingly musical all-singing, all-dancing, acting-with-arched-eyebrows performance doesn’t really give us a clue.
In its first performance in 1843, Giovanni Ruffini and Donizetti’s opera buffa libretto (mostly by Donizetti, drawing on an 1810 piece by Angelo Anelli, composed by Stefano Pavesi – Ser Marc’Antonio) there was no Malatesta quandary, because the audience immediately recognised the stock characters of the commedia dell’arte. Pasquale was the bad-tempered, bumbling Pantalone, Ernesto the pining-away-for-love Pierrot, Norina the tricky Columbina and Malatesta the trouble-making Scapino, who schemes just for the love of mischief.
This construal of Malatesta’s character was more readily seen in the 2010 Covent Garden production directed by Sir Jonathan Miller in the cut-away doll’s-house sets of Isabella Bywater, with Malatesta played hilariously by Jacques Imbrailo as a gangly, funny schemer, sans the romantic interest of the slim, handsome Mr. Borchev.
The wisp of a plot needs something extra to keep the audience’s attention – and in both these productions it’s the set that gives this added value. At Glyndebourne Ms Hansen’s revolving sets add to the comedy, especially when filled with the all-white-costumed chorus – the first, brief sight of which is breathtaking. Ms Clément uses them well, and her direction of the rapid-fire baritone patter arias and duet is as brilliant as Mr Borchev and Alessandro Corbelli’s performances of them. Mr Corbelli’s mastery of this role amounts to genius, and I hope that it, and Ms de Niese’s subtle acting and accurate coloratura passages have been saved for posterity on a DVD. Furthermore. Mr Mazzola’s orchestra was stunning, from the crisp opening chords to the amazing, discreet support given to the singers of both the patter-songs and the familiar ballad in waltz-time. At the opening night this season, Ernesto had to be sung by a dazzling last-minute replacement, Enea Scala, who sang the role for the Glyndebourne Tour.
Give Malatesta a proper purpose, and this staging will soar.