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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cleaning House (on Donizetti's Don Pasquale)


Giovanni Ruffini (libretto, based on a libretto by Angelo Anelli), Gaetano Donizetti (composer) Don Pasquale / The Metropolitan Opera, New York, November 13, 2010

A funny thing happened on my way to this opera. I had planned on my New York trip to attend the opera the day it was being broadcast live via high definition video so that Howard could see the same production back in Los Angeles as I sat in the theater. He might even spot me the audience as the camera scanned it. The irony is that he would have a much better view of the entire opera, plus backstage interviews that are often entertaining, while I sat in a high balcony seat squinting down at the small figures upon the stage. He would also hear it, sung into microphones at the edge of the stage, far better than I could from my vantage.

While I was in New York, I stayed with Sherry Bernstein, my poet friend Charles Bernstein's mother, whom I told of my plans. On Central Park West, her apartment is only a few blocks from the opera house. Oddly enough, Sherry also planned to attend, not at the Met but, just like Howard, at a live video showing in some movie theater.

Donizetti's comic opera is based very much on the stock figures of commedia dell'arte, so perhaps one need not be too serious about the ridiculous characters or the plot, which basically boils down to an attempt by two outsiders, Dr. Malesta (Mariusz Kwiecien) and his sister Norina (Anna Nerebko), to teach an old man, Don Pasquale (John Del Carlo), a lesson about life. Don Pasquale's young nephew Ernesto (Matthew Polenzani), in love with Norina, refuses to marry the woman his uncle feels is more appropriate. In reaction, Don Pasquale, on a suggestion from his doctor, Malesta, decides to marry Norina (pretending to be convent girl, Sofrina) instead, disinheriting Ernesto.

There is little else to the plot: the two are falsely married and Norina moves in, completely making over the house and her own wardrobe from top to bottom, as she prepares to head off to the theater without her new husband. Ultimately, the miserly Don Pasquale is so put-out—literally of his own life and house—that he is relieved upon discovering he has been duped, and is happy to hand over Norina to his nephew, while agreeing to restore his inheritance.

This silly story makes for many delightful moments, including Norina's truly comical "See, I am ready with love to surround him," and the servants' hilarious confusion in Act II and III, along with Norina's "Bring the jewels at once."

Yet I cannot help asking why this brother and sister team are so intent on teaching the old Don Pasquale a lesson, all for the sake of the rather meek and incompetent Ernesto? Norina is such a wicked flirt and liar that we can hardly understand her love for a boy so shocked by the announcement of Don Pasquale's marriage, he is ready to leave home and inheritance behind.Obviously, the two, brother and sister, do have something at stake. By pretending to marry Don Pasquale, the penniless Norina comes into great wealth, part of which most certainly will go, at the old man's death, to her lover.

But given her huge deceptions, even if they all turn out for the best, one has to wonder whether she will make such a poor boob a good wife. Certainly Ernesto is even more able to be hood-winked than his uncle.

By the time of the finale, "Heaven, what do you say?" there is actually little to be said. The heaven that has been invoked is one in which Norina has metaphorically cleaned the house of both men, who previously lived in a barren, cobweb-encrusted manor (at least in the Met production) existing, similarly, in lives basically empty and unused. I guess the question is, will Norina return the jewels or wear them to the theater each night?

New York, November 15, 2010

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