Don Impeccable (mostly)

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.

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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.

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