Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Don Pasquale: The Basso Buffo

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On March 12, 2016, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast via radio its matinee of Gaetano Donizetti’s comic opera, Don Pasquale. The eponymous role generally falls to a specialist in the comic characters of Mozart (Leporello in Don Giovanni, for example), or Rossini (Don Bartolo in Il Barbiere di Siviglia), or, of course, Donizetti himself (Dulcamara in L’Elisir d’amore). The success of the basso buffo hangs on the ability to regale the audience, to incite its laughter, more than it does on the quality of the voice. Above all, the bass must have the nimble diction that delivers rapid-fire patter, source of much of the fun. Often drawn from the company’s second rank, the basso buffo is nevertheless expected to carry significant musical and theatrical responsibility, yet he is rarely an opera’s focal point. Don Pasquale departs from this norm. In this ensemble work for a quartet of singers, the basso buffo is the central figure.

If we are to believe the reviewers, Salvatore Baccaloni was the first Met Pasquale, in the forty years since the opera’s company premiere, to grab and hold the spotlight. In the 1940 revival, and only then, did the basso buffo take full charge by upstaging his colleagues. The matinee broadcast, which we had access to in a recording, the one cheered by critics present in the opera house, does justice to Baccaloni’s outsized personality, reflected in his rich, shuddery voice; the delighted audience is frequently heard in appreciative response to his antics. Even the cool and acerbic Virgil Thomson agreed that the afternoon belonged to the bass, whom he compared to actors of genius Mary Garden, Fyodor Chaliapin, W. C. Fields, and Raimu! Baccaloni, who reigned as the Met’s principal basso buffo until the debut of Fernando Corena in 1954, continued to sing with the company until 1965.

Here is Baccaloni in a 1932 Italian recording of the Act III duet between Don Pasquale and Doctor Malatesta (the baritone is Emilio Ghirardini). Pasquale, a rich, stingy old bachelor, has been tricked into a mock marriage by his friend, Malatesta. Pasquale believes he has found proof that his much, much younger, spiteful, and spendthrift “wife,” Norina, is cheating on him, and with Malatesta, is elated at the prospect of catching her “in flagrante.” The second part of the duet requires the rapid-fire delivery to which we made allusion above.

In a 1979 video of this same duet, with subtitles in English, the great Welsh buffo Geraint Evans offers a Pasquale less broad than Baccaloni’s, but just as funny. He and Russell Smyth, the Malatesta, both anglophones, are adept at articulating the patter of the conclusion. 

The rendez-vous of Norina and her young lover, Ernesto, is a passage of sustained lyricism that we count among the most ravishing in all opera. First, Ernesto, Pasquale’s nephew who wants to marry Norina, sings a lilting serenade. Cesare Valletti, who took the role in the Met’s 1955 revival, was the company’s principal tenore di grazia through the 1950s. He tempers the over-the-top protestations of love declaimed for Pasquale’s benefit with his customary sincerity, sweet timbre, and command of subtle dynamics.

Following the serenade, without pause, Ernesto and Norina, their voices echoing and entwining, sing a love duet designed to enrage the presumably cuckolded Pasquale. “Tornami a dir” is a test for the singers as they match phrasing, stress, and tonal beauty at pianissimo level. In this 1930s recording, Tito Schipa and Toti Dal Monte ply their bel canto techniques to achieve a remarkable unison.

Like all operas designated “buffa,” Don Pasquale ends happily. The foolish faux husband, having seen the error of his ways, gives his blessing to the young couple.