Glyndebourne’s “Don Pasquale” with Danielle de Niese

Gaetano Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” is one of the comic gems of Italian opera. The work premiered in 1843, five years before the prolific composer’s death.  Opus Arte has just released a DVD of the winning 2013 Glyndebourne Festival production.  The main attraction is the star turn by the captivating Danielle de Niese, but other pleasures abound.

The title character is a wealthy old bachelor, who is annoyed at his nephew, Ernesto, for not going along with an arranged marriage. The young man has his sights on a pretty widow named Norina. The devious Dr. Malatesta talks Don Pasquale into marrying an innocent young girl, his own sister “Sofronia,” who turns out to be Norina in disguise.

After the ceremony, the supposedly shy convent girl turns into a showy spendthrift, who defies and even slaps her befuddled husband. At the end, Don Pasquale is happily single again and Ernesto wins the hand of the widow.

Director Mariame Clément and designer Julia Hansen have come up with some new twists in this production. One is that the manipulative Dr. Malatesta is even more insidious than usual. During the overture, he wanders through the bedrooms where each of the other principals is sleeping as if he were invading their dreams. There is even a suggestion that he is carrying on an affair with Norina.

The action is moved from the 19th to the 18th century with the chorus donning powdered wigs and appearing to be spectators at the event.

The title character is played by Alessandro Corbelli, a specialist in opera buffa roles (last seen at the Metropolitan Opera as the evil stepfather in “La Cenerentola”).  He manages to play to the house (evoking laughter) and also to the camera. (The film is well directed by Myriam Hoyer and the audio and video on the Blu-ray disc are excellent.) Corbelli also succeeds in making Don Pasquale more than a stock figure, but also rather pitiable when his supposedly innocent wife turns on him. Tenor Alek Shrader sings the part of the smitten Ernesto with the requisite lyricism and is also amusing when he is shocked to discover that the object of his affection has married his elderly uncle. 

As Dr. Malatesta, Nikolay Borchev is effective, whether in the solo “Bella siccome un angelo” (where he conjures up a vision of his innocent “sister”) or in his patter duet with Corbelli, “Cheti, cheti, immantinente” (where Malatesta pretends to conspire with Don Pasquale to help him get out of his painful marriage). 

The showiest role is that of Norina, who is, by turns, seductive, naïve, shrewish and lovable. De Niese is as much of a crowd-pleaser here as at the Met (where she was a cute Ariel in “Enchanted Island” last season). The fact that she is beautiful, even in close-up, adds to her credibility. Her singing is also lustrous throughout.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra is gracefully conducted by Enrique Mazzola, who seems to be having as good a time as the audience. He uses Donizetti’s original manuscript and adds some notes omitted by the printed score.

As a bonus, the DVD has the vivacious de Niese at the final rehearsal of the opera, speaking to each of the principals as well as the conductor and director.  Incidentally, the soprano and Shrader will appear in “The Merry Widow” at the Met this coming season but not at the same performances. He will perform with Broadway star Kelli O’Hara and de Niese will appear with another fine American tenor, Stephen Costello.