In 1843, Donizetti returned to opera buffa with his delightful Don Pasquale, an opera displaying all the ingredients of the genre: disguises, false names, counterfeit marriages, a disinherited nephew restored to his birth right at the end of the drama, an old uncle who will stop at nothing to protect his estate… It has fallen to the lot of director Damiano Michieletto to bring out the lightness and the depth of this work.
After The Barber of Seville and Samson and Delila, Don Pasquale is your third production for the Paris Opera. What made you decide to put on Donizetti’s opera?
Damiano Michieletto: This is a short opera that represents a challenge for a director. In it, Donizetti offers us a whole gallery of portraits drawn with great precision. Just as the composer was renovating and reinventing dramatic form and the characters of opera buffa, the interesting thing for me was to bring to the work a fresh eye, to conceive a modern vision of it and to rescue the characters from the usual operatic clichés, but to do it whilst preserving the comic aspects; to avoid being tedious without being too sophisticated; in a word, to take the plot seriously without being too serious. I noticed that, often, in contemporary dramas, the elderly characters are depicted as grave, heavy creatures, as if they had lost their comic side. I think it is important to allow space for laughter and lightness.
How do you see the eponymous character of Don Pasquale?
D.M.: He’s a weak character, isolated, incapable of breaking the habits that isolate him even more from the rest of the world, an old man who behaves like a
child: although he has seen a lot of life, he is extremely immature: he has no experience in the matter of love or sentiment, he has no means of expressing his emotions. There’s something in the very music he sings that is puerile, as if he constantly wanted to convince himself that he was still alive. From this point of view, he makes me think of Falstaff: old but believing himself still to be young and attractive. He likes to seduce and, of course, his attempts at seduction are always doomed to failure. He ends up abandoned and penniless and, as in the case of Falstaff, his demise doesn’t fail to amuse us. However, although Norina, Ernesto, Malatesta and even Don Pasquale himself sing that “the moral is very just”, we have every right to find it rather bitter. There is a certain melancholy in Don Pasquale. A melancholy that culminates in Norina slapping her “husband”. There are, at this point, several minutes of music that is really different from the rest of the opera. This is where the old man is forced to face reality. He feels vulnerable. He remembers his youth. Just like Verdi’s hero, Don Pasquale is fascinating dramatically, a sort of theatrical animal, because he plays a role, he is capable of taking huge risks, of throwing himself into a game without knowing the outcome and, when he fails, he is ready to start again.
Your production uses video. Can you say a few words about it?
D.M.: The video is linked to the character of Malatesta, who is an ambiguous character to say the least. He is a false friend. The prefix Mala is a reference to illness. He is the virus that poisons Don Pasquale’s life, the power behind the throne in a way. He appears to offer Norina his services, explaining that he plans to teach Don Pasquale a lesson so that the old man will allow his nephew to marry the woman he loves but, in reality, we don't know what his real motives are. He conjures up a fictitious world, an alternative reality, with a view to hoodwinking Don Pasquale. He offers to introduce him to his own sister, Sofronia, whom he describes as angelic, innocent, candid, generous, modest, sweet, loving and brought up in a convent into the bargain, according to the clichés of comedy at the time. But of course, none of this is true: she is in fact Norina who, no sooner is she married to him than she transforms herself and makes his life hell. The video serves to show the gap between the fantasy and reality.
Your reading: A Moral Tale. Or is it?