Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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No Norina: A “Don Pasquale” Showstopper in Zurich – September 23, 2007

September 29th, 2007

Zurich was warmer than usual for late September when soprano Malin Hartelius set down to eat a mid-day meal with her children. At the Zurich Opera House, veteran conductor Nello Santi, celebrating what would become an unforgettable birthday, raised his baton for the Zurich season’s second performance of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”.

[Below: Conductor Nello Santi; edited image of a promotional photograph.]

As the overture began, the curtain raised on the first impression of Luigi Perego’s settings, Don Pasquale’s grey brick townhouse with barred windows through which one could see an interior with an old-fashioned decor. The town-house exhibited an ornate double-door, surrounded by a stone archway, with stone benches attached to the house on each side. As the overture ends, Don Pasquale’s cook and decrepit butler each push half of this facade to the two wings to reveal that the backsides of each half of the house that had been out of the audience’s view, are really extensions of the great room in Don Pasquale’s home.

Ruggero Raimondi appears as Don Pasquale costumed in a dressing gown with matching night-cap. Oscar Widmer arrives as Doctor Malatesta, in a white suit, turquoise vest and striped tie. Malatesta is clearly not dressed as a man of the 1830s, which is what Donizetti would have expected, alerting us that Perego’s costuming scheme is to portray Malatesta (and soon Ernesto and Norina) in modern dress (although modern in this case means something vaguely in the 1920s Flapper Era).

In Pasquale’s Great Room, staircases lead to an upper floor. At either side of the main floor are baroque-style statues of daintily clad classical women. Pasquale is a teddy bear collector, with the classical brown toys set about on the stair landing and on the furniture, affording frequent opportunities for Pasquale and the others to hug a bear.

Raimondi’s Pasquale dominates the production. A perfect role for a veteran in the mature stages of a distinguished career, Raimondi displays both the vocal resources and the comedic talent to make the curmudgeon an ultimately warmly sympathetic character. The first scene is the one in which Pasquale seems to be comfortably in control of his domain, with Donizetti departing from the usual pattern of each principal artist singing formulaic cavatinas and cabalettas, to allow Pasquale to encroach upon both Malatesta’s and Ernesto’s music (an innovation that annoyed the original protagonists of both roles in 1843.)

As we move to the second scene, we grasp that the whole production is a unit set on a turntable with the exterior of Norina’s apartments as the second of those stage settings (the first, as noted above, contains both the exterior and interior of Pasquale’s dwelling.) Norina, played by Spanish soprano Isabel Rey, is costumed in a vertically striped lime green and vanilla blouse, atop matching pedal pushers and extravagant platform shoes of matching colors.

Rey’s Norina rests briefly under her patio umbrella, but soon Malatesta appears to enlist her into his schemes regarding Don Pasquale. She is to masquerade herself as Sophronia, Malatesta’s sister, a student at a convent. Rey negotiates Donizetti’s syncopated melodies while climbing and descending the exterior stairs, no doubt a physically exerting assignment. She then has to cover her dress with yet another costume, a floor-length matronly dress with long sleeves and a high collar, surely an unpleasant assignment on a hot Zurich afternoon.

The turntable rotates once more and we are at Pasquale’s backdoor where his servants have moved the luggage of the disinherited Ernesto. In a striking feature of this production from Grischa Asagaroff, for what is surely one of the greatest trumpet solos in all of opera, the trumpeter is in costume on stage as an itinerant beggar-musician, with hat sitting beside him in expectation of a handout. The now impoverished Ernesto, whose beautiful songs lie high in the tenor register (sung with distinction by Celso Albelo), gives him first one coin, then, reluctantly, another. The trumpeter leaves the stage, and is heard in one more mournful refrain of his melody, backstage, before returning to the orchestra pit.

We now return to Don Pasquale’s house, where he is frantic with excitement, dressed in an old-fashioned formal morning coat and donning a black hairpiece with red highlighting. He is transported with delight at the appearance of the demure and respectful Sophronia and readily accepts Malatesta’s suggestions that he use the notary the doctor brought with him to perform the ceremony. This sets up one of the truly funny scenes in this opera, where the Notary, in this production played by Murat Acikada dressed in sombre black, repeats the ends of the legal phrases thrown at him by the doctor and the Don.

During the session with the notary, Isabel Rey, seated at stage right, seemed uncharacteristically uncomfortable for an actress playing the smug Norina. Rey constantly fanned herself and wiped her face. Just before Ernesto was supposed to arrive to announce his angry farewell, Rey collapsed, falling face down on the stage floor. Because Asagaroff’s very physical stage direction called for Raimondi to stumble and fall at various plot points, Sophronia’s swooning might have passed as a bit of stage slapstick, but Raimondi ran toward her, then offstage and Santi brought the orchestral music to a halt.

[Below: Soprano Isabel Rey; resized image of a promotional photograph.]

Within a moment the stage curtains were drawn and management announced an intermission. After rather a long delay, patrons were invited to return to their seats. Then, Alexander Pereira, the Zurich Opera impresario, announced that Isabel Rey had been sent to the hospital (my sources variously used the terms “hypertension” and “circulatory problems”). He said that since they had the orchestra and chorus, conductor Santi, Raimondi, Widmer and Albelo, they planned to continue the opera.

They had contacted Milan Hartelius who had agreed to come to complete the performance, even though she had not sung Norina for over five years. He also said that, perhaps, a chorister who knew the role might sing parts of the opera until Hartelius arrived, and that they would figure out what to do as the afternoon progressed. And with a twinkle in his eye, he said he did not want to have to refund the tickets. He then sent us out for another intermission.

While Hartelius was traveling to the theatre, reviewing the vocal score, warming up and receiving a crash course on the Asagaroff production from the prompter and production assistants, a decision was made to make two deep and disastrous performance cuts. The first cut was the remainder of the scene from the notary’s declaration that a second witness was necessary.

Such a cut, of course, eviscerates the comic point of the opera, the transformation of Norina from the meek Sophronia to a termagant that destroys Pasquale’s existence (and redecorates the house). “Don Pasquale” requires this scene which includes Ernesto’s enlistment as the reluctant witness to Sophronia/Norina’s sham marriage and the enthusiastic designee as Norina’s post-marriage beau and companion. The highlight, after all, of the opera, is Sophonia’s astounding turnaround from submissiveness to command.

I suspect that arguments were taking place backstage as to how to proceed, and that whoever was in charge of the stagehands pointed out the amount of time needed to transform the set of Don Pasquale’s house from its old to its new look. The decision was made to restart the opera at the beginning of the next scene, with the house already redecorated. But the act should have been completed, beginning from where it had been halted, even if the chorister with the prompter behind her had to walk through Norina’s part, while the rest of the cast performed as they would have otherwise. The audience was in sufficient good cheer that they could have survived the time needed for the set changes.

Instead, the performance now fast forwarded to the results of Norina’s transformation – the expensively re-decorated house staffed by dozens of new servants. The classical semi-nude women have been replaced with erotically-postured male statues and there is a glass teddy bear at the base of the stairs that might have been fashioned by Lalique. The chorus is a riot of color displaying the imagination of the Luigi Perego’s costume designs.

The gossipy chorus having had their say, we now experience another disconcerting impromptu cut. We lose the reappearance of Pasquale and Sophronia, his confrontation of her over her plans to go to the theatre without him, and her deliberate dropping of a supposed communication with a suitor. Still without a Norina, Raimondi and Santi work out before our eyes what is to happen next, with tentativeness agreeing on the place in the score where Pasquale discovers the note. This leads to the highlight of that act (and for many, of the opera), the patter duet with Malatesta. Raimondi and Widmer did meet expectations of this famous number, which included the mock ‘spontaneous encore’ of the final Pasquale-Malatesta duet that is so often incorporated into productions of this opera.

When Hartelius does arrive, she is in denims and carries the vocal score for an enchanting duet with Albelo’s Ernesto. She displays a voice well-suited for the bel canto roles with a precise and beautiful trill. Even though the ensuing lines clearly maximized the resources of the prompter, she was able to make a very favorable impression walking along the revolving turntable back to Pasquale’s house, now restored to its former stodgy appearance.

The matinee was a broken performance, and from the standpoint of this website’s assessment of the current state of Donizetti productions, a fiasco. I would not be surprised if the Zurich team, on rethinking that afternoon, might have second-guessed themselves on what they should have done. I agree with them that the show should have gone on, but even if it required holding the curtain for a longer time for Ms Hartelius, or of using the chorister Norina they hinted existed for the two sections they excised, I believe they should have performed the entire opera.

There was a final improvisation. Noting that the day was Santi’s birthday, Pereira invited the audience to join in a glass of champagne as they left the auditorium. The house staff scurried to obtain dozens of cases of Jacquarat Champagne and to pour hundreds of glasses of this welcome product of Reims. With that, this unexpectedly abridged version of “Don Pasquale” ended at approximately the hour originally scheduled.

For a review of a previous Zurich production conducted by Nello Santi, see: Zurich and San Francisco: A Tale of Two “Forzas”.

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