Article by James Naughtie, 1997
Spontaneity is one of the most difficult things in opera. Audiences are willing to accept the artificialities of the form – why else would they be there? – but comedy presents a problem for every composer. Tragedy, and melodrama, seem to have a natural suitability for the operatic stage, because they can benefit from the very grandeur of the apparatus that has singers delivering their deepest feelings to the accompaniment of a full orchestra. With comedy it is not so easy. The reason why Don Pasquale found a comfortable niche in the repertoire at the moment of its first performance in Paris in 1843, and has never been dislodged since, is that it is a demonstration of Donizetti’s sheer brilliance in surmounting the problems as if they aren’t there. Breezy spontaneity is the mark of its comedy, and the score is fluid from beginning to end.
No wonder that Donizetti was the star of Italian opera after the death of Bellini in the 1830s. At the time of his own death, in 1848, Verdi was beginning to move into this great period. The years between were Donizetti’s. Since he’d started composing operas in the twenties, shortly after taking over from Rossini at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples, he’d become prolific and he was to produce about 70 operas in all, in a period of only about 25 years. In his best work you feel that energy pouring out, whether in the mad scene of Lucia di Lammermoor or the capers of L’elisir d’amore. And there lies a clue to his ease with the comic mode: he was a natural tragedian too.
His comedy is sharp and poignant. The moment when Norina slaps Don Pasquale should be one of terrible pathos, with sympathy, hilarity, and a tinge of all-knowing contempt shared by the audience. Donizetti was able to carry off easily what many lesser, earlier composers in the opera buffo style simply couldn’t. His comedy was able to evoke a measure of fellow-feeling in the audience which comes when he gives routine comic situations a touch of wry insight, as if a raw nerve is allowed to show itself just for a moment. That comes from a composer who was able to feel the sad power of the tragic stories he put on stage in Lucia, Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda among so many others. Put at its simplest, his comedy was seldom silly.
Yet it is such a difficult form to carry off with conviction. Both L’elisir and Don Pasquale were written extraordinarily quickly, supposedly in 14 and 11 days respectively, and it is obvious that Donizetti was somehow able to sail round the difficulties of bringing together the awkward stagecraft of comedy (so often so crude in opera buffo) and the confidence of a flowing score, so that they seem to have been created as one. In Don Pasquale, he manages to dispense with the continuo instrument in the recitatives, allowing them to flow over the string chords and preserve the feeling of conversation. And they serve to establish pace. In this opera there are no awkward bumps and scrapes, and gauche moments when you feel the music negotiating a tight hairpin bend. It flows free.
In that sense it feels like his last piece for the stage, which it was, having a kind of completeness about it. Don Pasquale seems to catch the essence of Donizetti in the way that Falstaff is Verdi’s grand exit from the operatic stage. Like many opera goers I have spent some excruciating evenings in the presence of composers whose comedy simply puts too much of a burden on performers, making it nearly impossible for all but the most natural singing-actors to carry it off. Don Pasquale is not like that. Its quality is not only in the perfect flow of the score, but because as a piece of drama it is comedy that makes sense.
You get a flavour of the difficulties facing the composer brought up with the opera buffo tradition all around him in a plaintive letter Donizetti wrote while he was working on L’elisir (though it only took him a fortnight). He said: ‘We have a German prima donna, a tenor who stammers, a buffo with the voice of a goat and a French basso who isn’t worth much’. Yet from the moment of its first performance in 1832 it had, like Don Pasquale, a guaranteed place in the repertoire. That feeling of ease in brushing aside the complications of opera is one of this opera’s most affecting features.
The story, after all, is a familiar mixture of comic stereotypes – the miserly bachelor, his old friend, the Don’s hot blooded nephew and his innocent lover, who is to be the instrument of the old man’s humiliation. In lesser hands, you’d have there the stuff of a potentially stodgy opera. Yet from the overture itself, which uses in the main the love music of Ernesto and Norina, this is something that springs to life. At every phase of the story, there’s some sparkly. The most famous probably, is the duet between Don Pasquale and Dr Malatesta, the one that is supposed to have audiences in stitches, and often does. Those who saw them say the Glyndebourne performances with Geraint Evans and Sesto Bruscantini under Sir John Pritchard in the early seventies were near-perfect examples of how it could be done. The trick is to allow the stage business to be the servant to the music, and not the other way round Donizetti’s makes the comedy with his timings – the music itself IS the fun. That duet is a good emblem for the whole opera, because it was the feeling of freedom and perfect control at the same time.
Look at the last act. Ernesto’s serenade to Norina, and the famous duet that follows, are little masterpieces and the prelude to the denouement which finds Don Pasquale less humiliated and broken by the deceit that’s been visited on him than relieved. It is not only the plot that establishes an ending that is warm and humane it’s Donizett’s musical control which establishes a mood of exuberant tenderness just as the last mechanics of the story, which all its traditional twists and turns, are working their way through. Nowhere in Don Pasquale does there seem to be an aria or an ensemble that is there because it is there, or because this is the point at which a certain character would be expected to have a big moment: everything seems to grow naturally, scene by scene. That is the real triumph of human comedy like this, that it doesn’t seem to be an artificial representation of how an old man can be made to recognise his weaknesses through comic humiliation, a sort of morality play that acts out a familiar tale of self- awareness being hard to come by. Instead, it rests on the humanity of characters whose music seems to illustrate their strengths and weaknesses as people, not simply the peculiarities of their situation.
Donizetti was a master of that kind of human understanding, whether it was in tragedy or comedy. Because he could write for the voice in a way that seemed to convey the texture of a personality, with all its ambiguities and puzzles, he could reveal people – on the stage even in the most artificial of predicaments. And what better definition of the duty of a composer of opera can there be than that?
James Naughtie presents Today on BBC Radio 4 and is a regular presenter of Opera on BBC Television and Radio 3