If I were to rank Don Pasquale among Donizetti's operas it is almost certainly in the top 3. My other two are Lucia Di Lammermoor and L'Elsir D'Amore. There are some great productions of Don Pasquale, with the Juan Diego Florez/Ruggero Raimondi(2006) being the only one that I don't recommend all that highly. This performance from Ravenna is one of the better ones, just behind those with Italo Tajo/Sesto Bruscantini(1955), Simone Alaimo(2007 and Feruccio Furlanetto(1994).
The Ravenna production is traditional, well-designed and attractive to look at. Sometimes it is a little bare and narrow, but never to the extent that it is distracting or cold. And I liked it that the staging was kept simple, with the humour well-defined and subtle, the pathos affecting and there is a good deal of dignity. Maybe it is not as observational as other productions, for example how Malatesta became Pasquale's confidante has been better done and perhaps more plausible elsewhere, but at the same time it didn't need to be necessarily observational to make its mark. Especially when there was a lot of effort to make Don Pasquale more than just a comedy. Musically the production is truly wonderful. The orchestral playing is luscious and beautifully textured, and it is a more percussive and punchy reading than what I usually hear but that approach didn't feel out of place at all. The chorus are animated and blend well, their vigour in the act 3 finale was admirable. Riccardo Muti's conducting was always disciplined and respectful, and his conducting has a nice loose, controlled, elegant yet appropriately playful edge, with great musicianship while never feeling cold.
The sound quality is excellent, and the video directing is clear and unobtrusive, the close-ups are a fair number but not too much. In regard to the latter, it is one case- the first in quite some time actually- where it is kind and accommodating to the performers, the fact that the mostly young principals were photogenic brought a sense of warmth. And the performances are wholly likable and very well done. Francisco Gatell is the weakest of the four principal performers but he is hardly disastrous. The fact that he was youthful and earnest made him a very plausible Ernesto indeed and made his and Laura Giordano's rapport as lovers equally so. And he does have a beautiful voice, just not one that is quite strong enough to give more authority(and his final note, or lack of it, in his Act 2 aria was disappointing). Laura Giordano is similarly attractive, her voice is pleasing and flexible- again though like with Gatell it is not a large one- and her Norina is both shrewish and charming.
Mario Cassi is perhaps too young for Malatesta and starts off a little shakily. When he gets going though, which actually is very quickly, he brings to the table a healthy baritone voice that is the right sort of size for Donizetti and also a slyness and great sense of humour. In short, he may not seem ideal but in characterisation he is right on point. The title role is taken by a much more experienced performer, Claudio Desderi, and brilliantly as well. His Pasquale is hilarious, his comic timing has always been exemplary, yet very human. And he sings never less than solidly and his style and Buffo technique are pitch-perfect. Cassi and Desderi positively blister together in their Patter duet, a good thing too since I have always considered it the highlight of the opera. In conclusion, engaging and hugely enjoyable. First choice? Not quite. Recommended? Absolutely, and with no hesitation. 9/10 Bethany Cox
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