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With Netrebko leading the way, 'Don Pasquale' makes for magical night at the Met

John Del Carlo
Washington Examiner

By Mike Silverman

NEW YORK — That foolish old bachelor who decides to get married so he can disinherit his nephew is back at the Metropolitan Opera — and the tale of his comeuppance is more delightful than ever!

Donizetti's comic gem "Don Pasquale" returned to the Met on Friday night in the Otto Schenk production that debuted four season ago. Two of the four major cast members were new — as was the conductor, music director James Levine — but the key ingredient was still in place: soprano Anna Netrebko as the high-spirited young widow Norina.

The Russian diva has been demonstrating in recent years that she can do just about anything. Last winter her poignant Mimi in "La Boheme" was one of the season's highlights. Now as Norina, she's once again showing off the comic timing of a born stage animal and using her alluring voice in some modestly challenging bel canto singing.

Her horseplay with her friend, Dr. Malatesta (a repeat performance by baritone Mariusz Kwiecien), as they plot to deceive Don Pasquale still seems fresh and spontaneous. It's an oddity of this opera that, since the soprano and tenor don't get to sing a love duet until the final scene, the chemistry between Norina and Malatesta is actually more potent.

The old man wants to marry and produce an heir to punish his nephew, Ernesto, who is in love with Norina — a relationship of which Don Pasquale disapproves, even though he has never met her. Malatesta introduces Norina, disguised as his shy sister straight from the convent, and Don Pasquale is immediately head over heels. Once the wedding is over, however, she instantly turns into a free-spending tyrant who makes his life so miserable he is happy to get her out of his house, even if it means Ernesto can marry her after all.

Netrebko's sudden transformation from timid maid to take-charge wife is hilarious, as is the growing befuddlement of Don Pasquale, as played by bass-baritone John Del Carlo.

Her defiance reaches its peak when he orders her not to go out to the theater and she slaps his face. Here Netrebko captures the moment that gives the opera a heart it otherwise would lack: At his look of shock and humiliation, she is visibly moved to regret her callous act. Even though she continues with the scheme, knowing that Norina feels sorry for the old man makes us forgive the rather cruel carryings on.

Kwiecien is in fine form, dapper and a whirlwind of activity. It's a pleasure to hear his compact baritone sound so healthy and at home in Donizetti's rapid-fire melodies. In recent seasons he has been taking on heavier roles, like Enrico in "Lucia di Lammermoor" or Escamillo in "Carmen" that have forced him to push and roughen his voice, but it's clear his special gift lies in lighter repertory.

Of the newcomers, tenor Matthew Polenzani is a treat as Ernesto, filling out his lines with romantic yearning and lovely soft high notes. Polenzani has been one of the Met's under-appreciated treasures for years, and here his polished performance puts him in the front ranks of a growing list of fine young tenors on the company roster.

And Del Carlo does a marvelous job of portraying a fatuous old man without ever losing our sympathies entirely. His robust voice sounds in terrific shape, and he really sings every note of his tricky part.

Adding greatly to the fun of the evening is Levine's energetic conducting, which brings out the somber beauties in the score as well as its effervescence.

With a live HD telecast scheduled for Nov. 13, Schenk returned to the house to oversee his production, which remains a serviceable vehicle. But the unwieldy sets by Rolf Langenfass take an inordinate amount of time to move, causing momentum-draining delays between scenes.

Schenk took a curtain call along with the cast, but, in a rare departure from tradition, Levine did not. His continuing frailty after back surgery was evident on opening night when he hobbled gingerly onto the stage for applause after conducting Wagner's "Das Rheingold." This time he stayed in the pit, and Netrebko pointed to him so he could take his bows from there.