Legend has it that when Gaetano Donizetti heard that Rossini wrote The Barber of Seville in a mere two weeks, he retorted, “That doesn’t surprise me; he has always been lazy.” Not surprising, since before succumbing to syphilis in his hometown of Bergamo, the 51-year old Donizetti had written no fewer than 73 operas. In the tradition of opera buffa, Don Pasquale references the stock characters of the commedia dell'arte, the familiar genre whose association made it accessible and popular from the start. Celebrating Pasquale’s première in Paris in 1843, the confident composer shared with his critics: "Have no fear for me... My work will be a success.”

Aleksandra Kurzak (Norina) © Rights Reserved
Aleksandra Kurzak (Norina)
© Rights Reserved

The action in Don Pasquale may seem the mix of slapstick comedy and a three-ring circus. But the content itself − a coniving plan to inherit a rich uncle’s fortune, the insideous abuse the new bride gives her ageing husband, his supreme devastation as he realizes he’s been taken − is at once human and downright depressing.

Aleksandra Kurzak's Norina is a devious thing. Once protected by the seal of marriage, she makes sheer hell for her new husband − the much older Don − redecorating his house, hiring more servants, dressing like a frosted tart, insisting on mountains of jewels. No wonder he stands speechless in light of it. Yet action on stage comes to a screeching halt when the young, insouciant wife levels the supreme insult: slapping him hard across the face. Even from the audience, you really have to feel sorry for the guy.

Kurzak warmed up the demands of her role as the opera progressed, and I was glad to see her turn her repertoire of standard coy mannerisms into something more three-dimensional. Her vehement anger was inevitably “closer to home” in a small opera house such as Zurich’s, and in the wonderful quartet in Act II, she shone above the three male principals like a bright beacon.

The role of the cunning doctor Malatesta was sung compellingly by baritone Andrei Bondarenko. Cool as a cucumber, he pulls off the most appalling lies with the straight face of a mafioso, and his Ox-Cam decorum was well suited to the pivitol role.

Tenor Ioan Hotea stood in as Ernesto for the ailing Javier Camarena in this performance, and is to be commended for mastery of the production’s multilevel staging. Through no fault of his own, the first stanza of his famous aria “Com'è gentil la notte”, was actually sung from the wings, perhaps to “mask” the boy’s open expression of love, but to me, weakening its pulp, and doing no favors to his performance. Further, when he sings to Norina in Act II as “one is consumed with desire”, his approaches seemed litle more than those of a lovestruck schoolboy’s and were sung with little nuance and variation.

Aleksandra Kurzak (Norina) and Andrei Bondarenko (Malatesta) © Rights Reserved
Aleksandra Kurzak (Norina) and Andrei Bondarenko (Malatesta)
© Rights Reserved

The far greater emotion is elicted by Don Pasquale himself. We can condemn the Don for his misguided stupidity, since signs that point to impotency abound: in the tennis teacher’s hands, a racket drops slowly from its upright position to point to the floor; punched vinyl white walls showing a semblance to “mattress” dominate his young wife’s decorating taste. Yet as the duped older husband, Carlos Chausson sang and moved in the role as if in his own skin, his tremendously skilled baritone making the production’s greatest asset. His voice ranged widely from exhiliration and promise to deep distress and rejection. Admittedly, the opera is meant to amuse, but given that no medicine will cure blind ignorance, the story is also tragically poignant, the opera’s great moral lesson being that the Don ultimately forgives the young conivers and their protegé.

The 35-man house choir gave a well-studied vocal performance, and their outrageously pink-and-plastic costumes dressed the usual suspects; a great gay hairdresser, three perky housemaids, a Mrs Hughes-type housekeeper among them. Rarely have I seen a musical director as animated and appreciative of his musicians as Enrique Mazzola, who at curtain, acknowledged the Philharmonia Zürich’s achievement with the same broad gestures that Don Pasquale had initially used to size up his Norina.

Overall, Grischa Asagaroff’s production was well-paced and colourful, and the set design (Luigi Perego), brilliant. Granted, the proliferation of the Don’s teddy bears of all shapes and sizes was a bit too clichéd. But the revolving stage around the core of the bastion-like villa was used here to great advantage, and classic Roman elements injected additional humour: the Capitoline’s colossal foot of Emporer Constantine used as a garden bench for Norina and Ernesto’s clandestine meeting, for example. Further, Jürgen Hoffmann’s stunning lighting design, especially across the villa façade at the start, added considerably to the glam factor of the Don’s opulent venue.

***11