Broadway actresses can rest easier knowing that Tony Awards jurisdiction doesn’t extend to the Metropolitan Opera. If it did, soprano Anna Netrebko would be a shoo-in to take this year’s top honor for lead actress in a tuner. Her star turn as the conniving Norina in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” at the Met is simply one of the great comic performances to be seen on the legit stage.
Three seasons ago, Baz Luhrmann tried to make the crossover from opera to Broadway with his fussy staging of “La Boheme.” Under the insightful direction of Otto Schenk, Netrebko and company make a much better case for opera as mass entertainment.
Unlike Puccini’s warhorse, the Donizetti comedy is a masterpiece of dramatic cohesion in its tale of an elderly bachelor, Don Pasquale (Simone Alaimo), who “weds” the young Norina despite her engagement to his nephew, Ernesto (Juan Diego Florez). And unlike most of the 64 operas Donizetti cranked out on automatic pilot (save for a florid mad scene here or a divine sextet there), “Don Pasquale” is absolutely unstinting in its musical invention.
Luhrmann emphasized ensemble over stars in his “La Boheme.” Schenk does him one better, casting four stars who work as an ensemble. To rave about Netrebko should not detract from the noteworthy perfs of her three gents, including the magnificent Mariusz Kwiecien, in whose hands the devious marriage broker Dr. Malatesta has never seemed more of a low-life pimp.
In fact, Schenk’s production, with sets and costumes by Rolf Langenfass, is an exceptionally earthy, working-class “Don Pasquale.”
Alaimo’s bachelor isn’t just old, he’s downright decrepit — a veritable Mr. Havisham who has moved his rickety bed to the ground-floor parlor to avoid climbing stairs.
And Norina is no parasol-carrying soubrette. Opera queens refer to Norina, somewhat unaffectionately, as one of those “ina” roles: pretty, cute, innocuous, less-than-spectacular assignments that don’t demand much dramatic or vocal heft. Roberta Peters and Kathleen Battle sang them. Beverly Sills essayed Norina in her last run of perfs at the Met after she had completely blown out her pipes on more strenuous, if less inspired, Donizetti operas.Netrebko offers us a thoroughly physical performance, whether she is turning somersaults on her roof deck or destroying Don Pasquale’s abode by smashing every piece of bric-a-brac in sight. Vocally, Netrebko may be saying goodbye to her lyric past, as her dark Russian soprano here seems to indicate a heavier spinto repertory.
After delicious acts one and two, it was tantalizing to contemplate how her plush soprano would play off Florez’s tight vibrato and ultra-bright tenor in the act-three duet “Tornami a dir che m’ami.” But it was not to be. Felled by an allergy attack, Florez didn’t finish the opera on opening night and was replaced at the last minute by the more generic-sounding Barry Banks, who received a generous ovation after his well-sung “Com’e gentil.”
Yes, Norina and Ernest overcome the designs of Don Pasquale, but one of the wonderful subtexts of Schenk’s production is the distinct impression that these two young lovers will not live happily ever after. Here is a Norina who deserves a Manrico or, better yet, a Macbeth.