Man Ray, Margaret Neiman, ca 1942,
© Man Ray 2015 Trust / ADAGP — Bildrecht, Wien — 2019, Photo: Telimage, Paris

Supported by the Salzburg Festival Society

‘Be docile and behave; remember that you’re old.’

‘È finita!’ — ‘It’s over!’ — stammers Don Pasquale, his complete dejection captured by a bleak, broken­ winded melody in the violins. The modest, shy Sofronia, whom Dottor Malatesta has brought as a bride for the elderly bachelor, has turned out to be a spendthrift termagant before the ink is even dry on the marriage contract. And now she has dared to slap her husband! Pasquale has woken up from dreams of wedded bliss to marital hell. Admittedly, the wedding was somewhat hasty and in any case an act of defiance aimed at his nephew Ernesto, who is financially dependent on him. Since the latter refused point­blank to give up his lover, the impov­erished young widow Norina, and rejected the wealthy lady chosen for him by his uncle, Pasquale resolved to disinherit Ernesto by taking a wife him­self and siring a whole brood of heirs, and to throw him out of the house, thus depriving him of any possibility of founding a family. For all this cold calculation, the prospect of an attractive young woman kindled an ‘unwonted fire’ in Pasquale: ‘The pains of ageing touch me no longer’, he announces in the introduzione of Donizetti’s opera to the lively whirling rhythms of a waltz. If only he knew that Malatesta is in cahoots with Norina and Ernesto, that Sofronia is in reality Norina, and that the intrigue cooked up by the Dottore aims at uniting the young lovers and knocking any future plans to marry out of Don Pasquale’s head… Part of this bitter lesson, the slap upset not a few of the audience in January 1843, when Don Pasquale was first performed at Paris’s Théâtre­-Italien. The Moniteur universel com­mented: ‘A slap, even if dealt by the prettiest and most delicate female hand, is nonetheless no laugh­ing matter. Thus the composer has placed serious tears, real tears, in the expressions of desperation voiced by the offended husband.’ Are we really in the middle of an opera buffa?
Indeed we are — but it is a one­-off in the genre. At a time when the opera buffa had started to seem like yesterday’s fare, and major composers were turning almost exclusively to tragic subjects, with Don Pasquale Donizetti opened up the genre for his own times, for a new, Romantic sensibility — and it is telling that he insisted on contemporary costumes for the first production. Don Pasquale is the result of a fascinating examination of the time-­honoured ingredients of opera buffa, poised between trad­ition and innovation: a ‘posthumous buffo opera’, as Alfred Einstein called it, but nonetheless immensely alive and true to life. The basic subject matter of the work — an ‘infatuated old man’ is tricked by the younger generation and made to look ridiculous — has been replayed since antiquity in countless comedies. The commedia dell’arte drew on the comic potential of the ‘vecchio innamorato’ to the same degree as the opera buffa, as does Stefano Pavesi’s Ser Marcantonio (1810), the libretto of which provided the immediate starting point for the plot of Don Pasquale.
Even the reworking of the libretto moves decisively away from the farce-like character of Pavesi’s work. But Donizetti goes much further: without weakening the situational comedy he creates out of the trad­itional comedic types psychologically differentiated, highly contradictory individuals who are also familiar with emotional vulnerability. The constantly chang­ing musical focus from amused detachment to em­pathy lends this comedy a pronounced melancholic aspect — ‘Laughter has no greater enemy than emotion’ wrote Henri Bergson. Thus the story of Don Pasquale, ganged up on by the other pro­tagonists, also becomes a reflection on old age between erotic needs and (imposed) resignation, and not least on the difficulties experienced by the different generations in encountering one another beyond preconceived ideas about how either should feel, act or behave.

Christian Arseni
Translation: Sophie Kidd

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