The curtain opens on a study appointed with appropriate masculine elegance, dominated by shelves and cabinets of dark wood; Pasquale mutters to himself as he fusses over the arrangement of his collection of classical sculptures. A little later, he stands in front of an impressively stocked bookcase while blustering at nephew Ernesto, who is slouched/sprawled sideways across a chair -- a physical attitude familiar to anyone who has ever seen (or, indeed, *been*) a teenager. Ernesto is looking at a newspaper and listening to his uncle, but not seeming to be paying much attention to either; he had entered yawning. The reading materials are one useful contrast (the hardbound volumes, which suggest the wisdom of posterity, versus the up-to-the-minute, disposable ephemera of a periodical); the clothes are another (Pasquale soberly and traditionally attired in a dark robe, Ernesto less so in pale blue silk). When Ernesto's lover Norina, in her guise as the virago Sofronia, marries old Pasquale, then moves in and sets about making him miserable, her redecoration not only feminizes but modernizes his home (not to our time, but to that of the opera's setting). Pasquale's sculptures and books are not removed but simply covered up; they vanish before our eyes. Throughout, stage director Stefano Vizioli emphasizes a confrontation between antiquity and modernity, old ways and new, and he locates a vein of melancholy running beneath the bumptious carrying on. Perhaps none of us will ever be conned into a frustrating sham marriage to serve someone else's ends, he seems to be saying, but we all eventually must yield to the baffling whirlwinds of succeeding generations. If we will not step aside gracefully, at least may we land gently. Nearly two centuries of operagoers have left the theater debating whether Pasquale's deception and humiliation at the hands of his friend, nephew, and "wife" are cruel out of proportion to his own wrongdoings (or intended ones), and thus whether the story misaligns our sympathies. Vizioli cannot be said to have entirely conquered the problems this libretto poses for a director, and the plot eventually boxes him into conventional solutions (the more cultivated Pasquale sketched out in the early scenes is, alas, stranded at midpoint), but his work is thoughtful, clever, even provocative in its understated way. At the levels of lighting, costume, and set design, this opulent production is consistently a pleasure to behold.
The singing, not exactly the stuff of the Golden Age, nevertheless is an above-average night of bel canto at La Scala, circa 1994. The American tenor Gregory Kunde takes top honors as Ernesto. This performance took place the same year his debilitating cancer ordeal began (he survived, and his performing and recording career continues -- good fortune for him and for his audiences), but there is no hint of infirmity in the singing. The tone is sweet, the phrasing aristocratic, the tessitura comfortable for him. He does not have a sanguine Italianate sound, but as lighter Ernestos go, he is a dream. Nuccia Focile has a bright instrument with more spice than cream in it, and the microphones catch and amplify that tight, quick style of vibrato that calls to mind a hummingbird. My own ear had to adjust, but eventually did. She is petite and attractive; at moments I was reminded of Teresa Berganza (in her style of playing) and Victoria de los Angeles (in her look). The lower-voiced men, Lucio Gallo (the enigmatic Dr. Malatesta) and Ferrucio Furlanetto (our long-suffering eponymous figure), are thoroughgoing and competent rather than strongly individual and magnetic. Furlanetto does have some good low notes and can patter at very fast tempi (and must, with this conductor). He manages a few affecting moments. Vizioli has him play the final scene with the sad kind of acceptance, not the good-humored "you can't win 'em all!" kind, and this proves poignant rather than soggy. But he is not the most engaging protagonist one can envision at the center of this production.
The real musical stars of the performance are in the pit. Riccardo Muti induces the Scala Orchestra to play the overture with such meticulous care and virtuosity that it sounds like a Beethoven symphony...performed with Beethoven's ghost in the theater, in foul temper and needing to be appeased. I mean that as a compliment. This sets the tone for the whole evening: there was hardly a moment in this performance, no matter what one of the singers (or more than one) was doing on top, when I was not aware of some succulent orchestral detail bobbing up for my attention and gratification. Inner and outer parts mesh with a clarity unexcelled in my experience; solo details such as the exposed cello in the overture and the mock-lugubrious cornet prelude to Ernesto's first solo are rich with tonal suavity; and the orchestra hangs together through the fastest, sharpest turns of Muti's thrill-ride through the score. This is a sleek, high-powered interpretation, all sheen and panache; if that sounds like the way you would like to hear DON PASQUALE, you should investigate it. I do not claim it is the only way to approach DON PASQUALE, or even the best way, but it is the thing that has been done, and I cannot imagine the thing being done more effectively elsewhere. The chorus, which has comparatively little to do in this opera and does not appear until Act III, makes a strong impression in its one big scene, the business with the gossiping among the house staff, which is wittily staged.
Patrizia Carmine's direction for television/video is notably good, with special praise for the intelligent use of long shots. Thank heavens we are past that unfortunate late 1980s period at La Scala, captured on several humdrum Opus Arte DVDs, when the camera often would cut away to Muti during an act, or even superimpose his image on the stage action. Audio and video meet the high standards we have come to expect from TDK, which continues to be the pacesetting label in this boom period for opera on DVD.