There aren't many operas I can claim to have conducted in an ice rink. OK, there's only one: In 1988 as music director of San Francisco Opera's Western Opera Theater, I conducted several hundred performances of Donizetti's ebullient Don Pasquale. One of our stops was in Morden, a very pleasant and hospitable small town in southern Manitoba, just across the northern border of North Dakota. We were scheduled to perform in Morden on a very chilly October night.
We arrived at the theater at about six o'clock in the evening, before the performance at eight. I went to check out the theater. I was surprised by the size of it for such a small town but was also a bit alarmed at the cold temperature, as much for the audience as for us. I was introduced to the local presenter and he assured me the audience would be fine as they were accustomed to performances in the ice rink. I walked to the edge of the room and sure enough, a temporary wooden floor had been placed over the ice. We were in the largest space in town.
But what an audience they were! Donizetti's sparkling score kept us all warm. The cast and orchestra found the whole event quite exciting, particularly as I kept reminding them that there was to be a party after, which would no doubt be replete with great food and would be warm. To our surprise, the party was outside, around a bonfire, on what felt to us like a cold October night. Of course, to the hearty Canadians it was just late summer.
So if some of my personal Don Pasquale memories are cold, it is certainly not Donizetti's fault. This opera is filled with sunny toe-tapping music and buttery Neapolitan melodies. Don Pasquale is certainly more of a dessert than a meal (this winter's meal is Puccini's sublime Manon Lescaut), but who doesn't love dessert?
Don Pasquale's plot, which can strike modern operagoers as slightly mean, is archetypal. Old Don P decides it's time for him to take a young wife. Doctor Malatesta concocts a devious plan of marrying him off to his sister, "Sofronia" (Norina in disguise) who goes along with the plan in order to marry her real love, Pasquale's nephew Ernesto. At first, "Sofronia" is a completely innocent and picture-perfect young bride. The moment the marriage contract is signed, however, she becomes a petulant and extravagant spending monster.
Their devious plan is all in good fun until Norina accidentally slaps Don Pasquale. It's played for laughs, of course, but it's at this moment that the opera is lifted out of being a simple divertissement. The moral of the opera, that old men should not marry younger women, is deeper than its literal meaning. It is symbolic of Donizetti's 1842, a time of unsettling changes in the Italian musical styles and attitudes of the mid-19th century, a time of wistfulness for the past while knowing the future is unstoppable. The moral is a lighthearted way of saying, "Age and youth must live together and learn from each other."
But of greater importance than the plot is Donizetti's wonder of a score, a true bel canto gem. The term "bel canto" is now such a catch-all that it's become nearly meaningless. Literally, it is "beautiful singing," but more accurately it describes a style of opera which is driven by the vocal line, with limpid and free vocalism, and the rhythmic elasticity of cantilena, or the "spinning" of a melody. It is an elusive and seductive style, but you know it when you hear it. And in Don Pasquale one finds the true essence of bel canto. This opera requires no work to enjoy it; it is the perfect work for patrons who adore the singing voice in all its expressivity. The orchestral writing is brilliant: Don Pasquale's overture has until recently been a concert hall staple. One rarely thinks of the bel canto operas as orchestral works, but Don Pasquale is superbly written for the orchestra, with textures of delicacy and transparency mixed with almost dance-hall energy. Being a domestic comedy, Don Pasquale is filled with magnificent ensembles, such as the riotous duet when the oily Malatesta outlines his plot to a far-too-willing Norina. Listen to Donizetti's pizzicato wit during the trio when Norina arrives disguised as Sofronia. The centerpiece of the work, the great "theater" duet that opens the second act, has no parallel for grandeur, pathos, and sheer good fun, and includes perhaps the opera's most hummable tune in Norina's great waltz (she tells her new husband to "go off to bed; reflect on your age"). One hears the roots of Gilbert and Sullivan in the patter duet between Pasquale and Malatesta near the end of the opera. And of course, young love is given its perfect vocalism in Ernesto's earnest serenade and in the luscious nocturne with Norina. Donizetti writes like a great tour guide: he makes everything completely clear, lively, lithe, and great fun.
Speaking of tours, back to Western Opera Theater: We once arrived in a city quite late at night, and a note had been left for me at our hotel. The note asked if I could come to a local restaurant the following morning to give a short talk about "our opera." So I showed up at the appointed time, was introduced, and soon found myself in front of 30 strangers explaining the plot and score of Don Pasquale. Briefly and jokingly I scurried them through the plot of the opera, ending with the moral Norina sings at the end, "Old men should act their age." I got no reaction at all. Nothing. Ah well, I thought, it is morning. I thanked them and left. As I was being escorted out, I asked what group I had just addressed. The man said, quietly, "We're a support group for divorced men over 50." And I thought it had been cold in Canada.
Patrick Summers is the music director of Houston Grand Opera.