For nearly 40 years, the Austrian actor-director Otto Schenk has been a major force in defining the sober, conservative, inoffensively representative production styles that older Metropolitan Opera audiences seem to enjoy best. Seen in that light, Schenk’s ultrabusy new staging of Donizetti’s charming opera buffa Don Pasquale, announced as his final Met project, is an astonishing nonstop celebration of vulgar comic shtick. What a difference from Schenk’s most familiar and frequently revived Met production: Wagner’s epic “Ring” cycle, a literal-minded, storybook approach that is not so much comfortably traditional as it is theatrically inert and intellectually brain-dead. You may not like his Don Pasquale either, but no one can say that nothing happens.
Perhaps Schenk is still in an antic mood, having recently appeared as Miss Prism back home in Vienna in an all-male production of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. In any case, the delicate touches that warm Donizetti’s poignant human comedy, based on old Roman commedia dell’arte archetypes, are mostly absent here. The opera retells the age-old tale of what happens when Don Pasquale foolishly weds a timid young girl who turns shrewish on their wedding night and teaches him a hard lesson in life before returning to her true love, Pasquale’s impecunious nephew Ernesto. In Schenk’s view, Norina is a nasty piece of work, a terminal bitch who actually seems to enjoy torturing lovesick old men. Dr. Malatesta, Pasquale’s friend who arranges the fake match, is even more of a rat, slinking about in dark glasses and a zoot suit as though he really were a professional pimp from the Via Veneto. Both Pasquale and Ernesto are the passive victims of these two sleazes, and they haven’t got a chance.
The starry cast gleefully falls in with the repulsive concept. Looking like a model out of Vogue, Anna Netrebko would turn the eye of any roué as she lounges about her penthouse apartment, kicking her legs in the air and hanging her frilly unmentionables on the line. Netrebko is, of course, one of opera’s hottest properties at the moment, gorgeous to behold, comfortable onstage, and blessed with an attractively textured, skillfully managed lyric soprano. What I miss right now is that last extra touch of discipline, concentration, and commitment that would give this potentially fine singer sharper focus and make an indulgent star turn, even a misconceived one, into a real performance.
Juan Diego Flórez is the preferred bel canto tenor of the day, and with good reason. Not only does he imbue every florid phrase with precision and elegance, but he manages to project a delightfully appealing boyish vulnerability that shines through all the tired gags he is asked to perform. On opening night, he had to miss the last scene owing to an “allergic reaction” (Barry Banks took over with honor), but his Ernesto was still the production’s saving grace. Simone Alaimo in the title role more or less faded into the scenery, while Mariusz Kwiecien’s suave baritone was pretty much wasted on Dr. Malatesta. Maurizio Benini had the orchestra playing stylishly, and Rolf Langenfass’s humidity-drenched sets (more Sicily than Rome) are easy on the eyes. What this Don Pasquale needs most urgently is to be restaged, as soon as possible.