MILAN: Don Pasquale, Francesca da Rimini
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In Review > International

Don Pasquale, Francesca da Rimini 

Teatro alla Scala

In Review La Scala Don Pasquale hdl 718
Barbera, Feola, Maestri and Olivieri in La Scala’s Pasquale
© Brescia/Amisano Teatro alla Scala

DONIZETTI'S COMIC masterpiece Don Pasquale is sufficiently well crafted to entertain audiences even when not cast from strength, but it should be remembered that the cast of the premiere in Paris, in 1843, was headed by four of the greatest singers of the nineteenth century—Giulia Grisi, Giovanni Mario, Antonio Tamburini and Luigi Lablache. The expressive refinement of Donizetti’s vocal writing for Don Pasquale can be revealed only by performers of uncommon accomplishment. This is particularly true of Ernesto’s melodies, whose aching poignancy was distilled to perfection by René Barbera in his debut engagement at La Scala. The Texan tenor achieved a perfect balance between crisp diction and seamless legato, gratifyingly mellow tone and poised agility (he introduced some stylish variants in the Act II cabaletta), a soaring upper range and effortless modulation of dynamics at all pitches. His stage presence—reassuringly reminiscent of archetypical Italian tenors of times past—may be more evocative of chubby companionship than of sweeping romanticism, but the intensity of suffering that is unique to enamored youth thwarted in its desires was keenly conveyed, as was the heady romance of the Act III serenade and nocturne. 

Ernesto was the only one of the five characters onstage to survive the distorting effects of Davide Livermore’s lavish, cinematically inspired Don Pasquale staging, set in Rome in the heyday of Cinecittà. The production was not lacking in purely visual appeal (the ever-changing sets were by Livermore himself and Giò Forma, with costumes by Gianluca Falaschi), but it was oriented more toward Fellini-like fantasy than toward the carefully calibrated psychological realism needed to lend convincing life to the characters; for example, Norina’s duet with Malatesta was turned into a fashion show. Livermore’s staging was informed by a coarsened, dumbed-down response to Donizetti’s dramaturgy that inevitably affected most of the singers negatively.

Ambrogio Maestri has the right sort of vocal and physical presence to perform Don Pasquale in a large house, but on April 11, his mother-fixated portrayal was marred intermittently by touches of crude overemphasis. Rosa Feola offered some musically polished singing as Norina (though her trill lacks definition), but her character was inflated out of proportion. Mattia Olivieri emphasized the ethical slipperiness of Malatesta but conveyed none of the charm that enables the character to get away with it. The Scala Chorus was also employed to exaggerated effect, although there was nothing wrong with its singing, and after a somewhat hard-pressed overture the orchestral accompaniments were truly savored under Riccardo Chailly’s masterly leadership.

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Maria José Siri and Marcelo Puente in Francesca da Rimini in Milan
© Brescia/Amisano Teatro alla Scala

A BETTER INTEGRATION of musical and theatrical values was achieved on April 15 in the same theater, when David Pountney’s production of Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini—the first here since 1959—was unveiled. Unlike Don Pasquale, this D’Annunzio-inspired work (the libretto is a cut version of his play) really needs a director capable of reinterpreting the opera for today’s audience, and Pountney found a way—both in his penetrating program note and in the action he devised onstage—of making the perversely decadent sensibility of the Italian poet seem stimulating in its complexity. The single, revolving, semicircular set—designed by Leslie Travers—displayed the machinery of war (replete with phallic symbolism) on the outside and a rarefied, sculpted beauty in the inner chamber, where the adulterous love of Francesca and Paolo is consummated, and where they ultimately meet their deaths.

The costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca alluded both to the period of the opera’s premiere (1914) and to the medieval era in which the real-life Francesca lived. Overall, the staging evoked a world apart, as if suspended in time. The refinement of texture achieved by the Scala Orchestra even in the most blatantly aggressive climaxes did much to further this illusion. The sonic balance between stage and pit was not always ideal, but there was no doubting conductor Fabio Luisi’s skill in breathing with the singers and in conveying the sensuous beauty of Zandonai’s finest opera score.

As Francesca, soprano Maria José Siri lacks the temperament to suggest a woman destroyed by all-consuming love, but she sang the entire part with ease and spontaneity, making us at all times aware of the expressive potential of the music she was performing. Marcelo Puente had an ideal look for Paolo, but his rigidly “covered” tone made it difficult for him to bring the words alive. His fellow tenor Luciano Ganci acted superbly as the perfidious Malatestino and used his perfectly poised voice to consistently eloquent effect. Baritone Gabriele Viviani really made us understand what it feels like to be Francesca’s aggressive but psychologically vulnerable husband, Giovanni. The role of the court jester, played by Elia Fabbian, would have benefited from the more specific skills of a genuine buffo, but all the other parts were strongly cast, and the audience (which included Raina Kabaivanska, herself a famous Francesca) seemed fully engaged in what was happening onstage. —Stephen Hastings 

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