Comic Relief

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The wit and warmth of Don Pasquale sprang directly from its creator, the endearing and prolific Gaetano Donizetti.

In 1842, composer Gaetano Donizetti was at the top of his form. Then forty-four, he could honestly say that he was "smothered with honors and applause, fêted everywhere." That spring, the Emperor of Austria awarded him the post Mozart had once held, naming him Music Director and Composer for the imperial court. Then Gioachino Rossini, the revered composer who stood as Italy's national icon, sent a personal letter inviting Donizetti to write a new opera for Paris. In December, Donizetti was nominated to membership in the French Academy.

In spite of all that attention, Donizetti never lost the modesty that always defined him, and he remained as easy and unaffected in the light of fame as he had been in obscurity. According to William Ashbrook's magisterial Donizetti (1965), the definitive biography of this composer, the boy that school teachers once described as "diligent, quiet, and attentive," with "agreeable manners and a ready humor" had grown to be an affectionate and generous colleague, ready to help other composers, Verdi foremost among them. Tall and handsome, with blue eyes, dark brown hair, and fair skin, Donizetti had "a frank, open countenance" that mirrored his "excellent character" and "fine qualities." And though he might make people laugh, he could also speak frankly of his profound grief over the deaths of his wife and young children. Not surprisingly, the accepted wisdom about him in the world of 19th-century opera was this: "You could not be with Donizetti and not love him."

It is surely no exaggeration to say that he poured his whole spirit‹ the warmth, the humor and the pain‹into his operas. Although his career spanned nearly thirty years, he worked very hard to win recognition, only gradually coming to be seen as the legitimate successor to Rossini. Amazingly prolific, Donizetti composed seventy operas, both serious and comic (including the ever-popular Lucia di Lammermoor), and more than a hundred songs; a collection of string quartets, sonatas, and piano pieces; instrumental works for orchestra; almost thirty cantatas and two oratorios; four Requiems, about two hundred other pieces of religious music, and an astonishing collection of smaller works. In the end, he ruled his field, from northern Europe to Sicily, from Constantinople and St. Petersburg to the Caribbean and North and South America.

This meant that Donizetti arrived in Paris in September 1842 as an acclaimed Maestro. He quickly agreed to compose Don Pasquale for the city's Théâtre Italien, devoted to Italian opera, and began work with the librettist Giovanni Ruffini. As for the music, Donizetti said it cost him "more than ten days of labor," and by mid-November he was ready to put the comedy onstage.

Expectations for Don Pasquale ran high because some of Donizetti's best opere buffe were already staples of the repertory. Among them, L'Elisir d'amore (1832) was seen as his best‹the finest comic opera since Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia. Like all its opera buffa "cousins," it comes straight from commedia dell'arte, popular Italian street theater, with its crew of recognizable and much-loved characters: the vain, lecherous elderly gentleman (sometimes a guardian or tutor) who is determined to take a young bride; the woman he intends to marry; her lover or fiancé, who conspires with her to thwart him; the nurse or duenna; the house servants and other tricksters such as Figaro, "the Barber of Seville"; the wily minx Colombina of traditional commedia; and the conniving doctor like Malatesta in Don Pasquale. Then there are the real or fake "professionals," the music teachers or "doctors" such as Rossini's Don Basilio or Donizetti's Doctor Dulcamara in Elisir, and finally there is the notary, with his portfolio of phony documents; he officiates at the signing of fake marriage contracts and handles all dubious "legal" transactions. In Donizetti's day, singers and audiences alike could recognize these figures, and they would see them in Don Pasquale as well.

Rehearsals for the world premiere production of Don Pasquale began in November, with Donizetti particularly lucky in having an all-star cast. In the young lovers' roles were soprano Giulia Grisi and the tenor Mario (an aristocrat who used just his given name throughout his career), two singers who were just past thirty years old and at the pinnacle of their profession. Grisi, the Norina, was an authentic diva. The child of a theatrical family, she had a sister, Giuditta, who was a popular mezzo, another sister, Carlotta, who became a leading ballerina, and an aunt who was a legend all across Europe: the great contralto Giuseppina Grassini. After appearing in Donizetti's Ugo, Conte di Parigi in Milan in 1832, she went on to sing many other works from his repertory. She also played major roles in the premieres of Norma, I puritani, and I Capuleti e i Montecchi. The marvelously handsome Mario, who sang Ernesto, was Giulia's common-law husband. Possessor of a singularly beautiful voice, he played the romantic idol on the stages of Paris and London for more than thirty years.

As for the two basses in the cast, Donizetti had known them both since the mid-1820s. Antonio Tamburini, a veteran of several of many of his productions, sang Malatesta in this first Don Pasquale, while Luigi Lablache‹a colossal artist in every sense‹took the title role. Lablache, born in 1794, was of French-Irish parentage and Neapolitan by birth, but in art he was universal‹tall, strong, very large, and in demand from Italy to France, England, Austria, and Russia. Among hundreds of his landmark performances, he sang in 1809 in a Requiem commemorating Haydn's death; in 1827 he sang in Mozart's Requiem at Beethoven's funeral and was one of the torch-bearers at the composer's bier; and at Bellini's funeral in 1835 he was the soloist, singing a "Lachrymosa." Lablache also taught voice to the young English princess and future queen, Victoria. (The "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind, once said, "Lablache is a genius. And what a voice! Oh, God in heaven! And the most perfect actor you could ever see!")

These four artists, known as "The Grand Quartet," were the ideal, consummate professionals for Don Pasquale. Thanks to the French poet and critic Théophile Gautier, we know exactly how the premiere went. Here is part of Gautier's account:

"The uncle [Don Pasquale], played by Lablache in the most fluttering manner, wearing a housecoat of white dimity, nankeen trousers, and a black silk bonnet, is like all uncles everywhere, very displeased with his rascal of a nephew [whom he wants to disinherit]. Don Pasquale, in spite of his 68 years and his gout, finds himself still enough of a gay blade, still green enough [to think he can beget children of his own]; and to this end, he consults Doctor Malatesta. . . . The doctor returns with a young woman [Norina] wearing a dress [of] the most virginal, pale caramel color and a black veil [that hides her face]."

In costume for his first meeting with her, Lablache donned a "superb" dark brown wig with "ridiculous curls" and "a green frock coat with engraved gold buttons, which he could never fasten because of the enormous rotundity of his figure. All this gives him the look of a monstrous beetle that wants to open his wings to fly and cannot succeed. With the most gallant air, he advances with popping eyes, his mouth heart-shaped, to take the girl's hand. She emits a cry, as though she had been bitten by a viper."

Oh, that shriek! No wonder the opera was a huge success. The next day, Donizetti shared news of his triumph with a friend: every single piece had been applauded, and he had been called out for bows after the second and third acts. The cast had been "unsurpassable," with Lablache towering above the others. To his joy, he got the perfect premiere for the perfect comedy.

Mary Jane Phillips-Matz is the author of the recent Puccini: A Biography, Rosa Ponselle: American Diva, and the definitive Verdi: A Biography, which won the Royal Philharmonic Prize, the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award, and the New York Governor's Award of Excellence.

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