Lyric Opera of Chicago
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  • by Gaetano Donizetti
  • In Italian with projected English texts.

    New-to-Chicago production. Don Pasquale was originally a production of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. Owned by The Dallas Opera.

  • Running time: 2h 35m

Never mind that he’s having a late-life crisis.

The well-aged and well-heeled Don Pasquale just wants a little respect. So when his headstrong nephew Ernesto (who’s head over heels for the luscious Norina) refuses to marry the woman Pasquale thinks he should, Uncle P goes ballistic. He cuts Ernesto out of his will and decides to father his own heir.

All Pasquale needs is a sweet, obedient wife to do his bidding—and he thinks he’s found her. But look out, because the minute the wedding’s over, Miss Gentle-as-a-Kitten turns into Mrs. Tigress-with-an-Attitude—complete with a ferocious appetite to spend, spend, spend!

All of a sudden, bachelorhood never looked so good! Enjoy this sparkling, wickedly sardonic, very human comedy that tickles the funny bone, yet touches us with sentiment, too.

Don Pasquale must be both hilarious and endearing, and he will be when fabulous Ildebrando D’Arcangelo trades in his sexy image to delight with his quicksilver comic timing! “He’s magnificent…” (The Independent) “An agile actor and a singer for whom words are as important as the notes.” Opera

Lyric audiences loved her smoldering Lulu and her riotous Adele in Die Fledermaus. “Delectable Marlis Petersen brings down the house with her singing, clowning and dancing.” Chicago Tribune

René Barbera: This Ryan Opera Center tenor is a “breakout star,” taking top honors in all three male categories of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition. Chicago Sun-Times

Lyric Opera presentation generously made possible by the NIB Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. J. Christopher Reyes, and Roberta L. and Robert J. Washlow.


  • Ildebrando D

    Don Pasquale

    Ildebrando D'Arcangelo

    “He’s magnificent…” (The Independent) “An agile actor and a singer for whom words are as important as the notes.” Opera 

  • Marlis Petersen


    Marlis Petersen

    Lyric audiences loved her smoldering Lulu and her riotous Adele in Die Fledermaus. “Delectable Marlis Petersen brings down the house with her singing, clowning and dancing.” Chicago Tribune

Lucia di Lammermoor - Susanna Phillips 

Don Pasquale
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo

Lucia di Lammermoor - Giuseppe Filianoti 

Marlis Petersen

Simon - Krassimira Stoyanova 

René Barbera† †

Alan Held 

Corey Crider† †

Aida - Raymond Aceto 

Stephen Lord

Aida - Kocan 

Sir Thomas Allen*

Aida - Kocan 

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle


Aida - Joel 

Lighting Designer
Christine Binder


Chorus Master


*Lyric Debut
† current member, Ryan Opera Center
† † alumnus/ alumna, Ryan Opera Center

No Fool Like an Old Fool
Don Pasquale returns to Lyric
By Jack Zimmerman

If you’re an old man, don’t fall in love with a young woman. That’s the lesson of Don Pasquale.  The work’s composer, Gaetano Donizetti, racked up a total of 66 operas for his lifetime output. Don Pasquale, which premiered in 1843, was number 64.

Don  Pasquale’s characters are tried-and-true comedic types whose origins can be traced to the 16th-century commedia dell’arte: Pasquale is blustery and self-delusional, Ernesto is an inexperienced youth, Norina is the sex kitten with claws, and Dr. Malatesta is simply the guy who moves the plot forward. Lyric audiences will see the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Don Pasquale, originally created for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and now owned by The Dallas Opera. Ponnelle’s cleverly designed sets are based on a stage-within-a-stage concept, and the period costumes are right out of the 1820’s.  

Sir Thomas Allen, who makes his Lyric directorial debut with this production, sees the work as a domestic drama with moments that inspire laughter and a few that inspire sadness. “It seems not quite right to think of it as just a comedy,” he says.  

While this is his Lyric directorial debut, Allen has a long history with the company, first appearing here in the role of  Figaro in the 1989-90 Barber of Seville. He has an even longer history with the Ponnelle production of Don Pasquale. “It’s odd how a particular work finds ways of entering one’s life over many years,” he says. Allen as a young baritone fulfilling the duties of an understudy at Covent Garden in the early 70’s. It was during that time that he observed Ponnelle working on his production over the course of several weeks:  “The production became quite notorious then, for the fact that the set was overwhelmed with the presence of Don Pasquale’s collection of cats. One cat even had a motorized tail that would flick at the touch of a stage-manager’s switch! The cats, and casts, have long since disappeared, slowly, but surely over the years. Ponnelle’s set has been assembled in a number of venues since then. We catch up with it on North Wacker Drive and the piece itself, Don Pasquale.”  

Incredibly, Donizetti wrote the opera in two weeks (he used some music composed for other operas). Giovanni Ruffini had been declared an enemy of the state. He was living in exile in Paris, and it was there that he approached Donizetti about being his librettist. Ruffini delivered a draft but Donizetti changed so much of it that Ruffini refused to allow his name on the program for the work’s première.

It didn’t matter – audiences loved Don Pasquale from the start. “I was called to the stage between Acts Two and Three, and no piece passed without some sort of applause,” Donizetti wrote of the 1843 opening-night reception.

The opera begins with prickly exchanges between Pasquale and his nephew Ernesto, who refuses to marry the wealthy woman whom Pasquale believes will shore up the family gene pool. While incapable of loving the woman chosen for him by his uncle, Ernesto is indeed capable of loving. He’s completely enraptured with the young and very beautiful Norina, a widow without a fortune or a prestigious family name.

Pasquale doesn’t care about his nephew’s infatuation. He’s an old bachelor in the endgame of life, who more than anything wants the comfort of knowing he has a legal heir. When Ernesto will not marry the woman chosen for him and produce that heir, the old man decides to marry and produce his own.

Dr. Malatesta, Pasquale’s friend (Ernesto’s friend as well), hatches a complex plan: Malatesta sells Don Pasquale on marrying Malatesta’s “sister,” the shy, convent-schooled Sofronia. But the woman he presents as his sister is really Norina in disguise – you see the comedic possibilities here. Complicating things even further, Ernesto knows nothing of this.

With the help of an ersatz notary, Don Pasquale marries Sofronia, or so he thinks. Although he’s anticipating a heaping helping of wedded bliss, he soon realizes otherwise. Immediately after the wedding, Sofronia makes ridiculous demands on her now-rapidly aging husband. It’s as if we’re watching an episode of The Real Housewives of 19th-Century Italy. Sofronia demands more servants, more clothes, and more jewelry.

But Don Pasquale, who is no sugar daddy, regrets falling for youth and beauty. In the end Ernesto gets Norina and Don Pasquale hobbles into a peaceful old age, alone, but relieved to be done with a younger woman.  The final quartet is “La morale in tutto questo” – “The moral of all this” is do not marry in old age.

 Singing the role of Don Pasquale is 42-year-old Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, last heard here as Escamillo in the 2005-06 Carmen. Unlike the suave, bullfighter of Bizet’s masterpiece, Don Pasquale is a man of a certain age.  “When I think of Don Pasquale, I think more of the acting than the singing,” says D’Arcangelo. “When I was a child, everybody told me I should become an actor because I enjoyed imitating characters of all kinds. I hope that people who come to these performances will realize that opera is not only drama. It’s where you can also find comedy, too!”

The object of the old man’s desire is Sofronia, played by the sparkling Marlis Petersen who triumphed at Lyric in Lulu in 2008-09 and who was a delightful Adele in Die Fledermaus in 2009-10. “Norina’s a cheeky girl,” declares the German soprano. “I see her as a very playful character, agile and feminine. I love the moment when the page turns and Norina changes from the decent convent-schooled girl to the dominant ‘furia’! It is in this moment that the piece becomes a real joy to the audience.”

Ernesto will be sung by René Barbara, former Ryan Opera Center tenor and last summer’s first-place winner in Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition (he won in three separate categories!). Lyric audiences have heard him as Arturo in Lucia di Lammermoor and Brighella in Ariadne auf Naxos and he recently triumphed in St. Louis in The Daughter of the Regiment. Corey Crider, also a Ryan Center alumnus, is Malatesta. He’s appeared here as Jim Larkens in The Girl of the Golden West (2010-11) and as Wagner in Faust (2009-10). Don Pasquale’s conductor is Stephen Lord (Tosca at Lyric, 2009-10).  

“Don  Pasquale is endlessly tuneful,” says Lyric’s general director Anthony Freud. “And it’s wickedly sardonic in showing the stupidity of the title character who cons himself into thinking that Norina, this spitfire young glamourpuss, is really falling for him. But Don Pasquale is still treated with humanity and compassion. The audience feels for this befuddled old man thanks to Donizetti’s very compassionate music.”

Humanity and compassion tucked into a delightful comedy – add to that a cast of spectacular vocal talent and the stage direction of Sir Thomas Allen and you have a sure-fire holiday treat.

Bel Canto Sitcom:
Donizetti’s Irrepressible Don Pasquale
By Roger Pines

The late, great Beverly Sills recalled in her autobiography that she was once performing in a concert that also involved two of the 20th century’s most distinguished musicians, cellist Pablo Casals and conductor Leopold Stokowski. In the 1940s Stokowski had married a woman more than four decades younger than he, and in the 1950s Casals had done the same thing. While watching Casals play, Sills was seated next to Stokowski, who gently touched her knee, then her thigh, as he whispered to her, “Look at that Casals – how young, how attractive, how strong he is. That’s what happens when you marry a young wife.” Then later, Casals was sitting next to Sills as they watched Stokowski conduct. Casals touched Sills’s knee, then her thigh, and whispered, “Look at that marvelous Stokowski – so young, so strong, so virile. That’s what happens when you marry a young wife.” Sills wondered if the two of them had rehearsed the routine just for her.*

The attitude about that kind of marriage couldn’t be more different in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. We’ve got three characters who are all out to teach an old man that it’s really not a good idea for him to marry at all, let alone a woman many years younger. Pasquale does so, the result being all manner of comic intrigue, accompanied by a score that the whole world has recognized as one of the gems of bel canto. At the same time that we savor its musical content, we’re delighted by the antics seen onstage that reveal Don Pasquale as one of opera’s most endearing situation comedies.

When Donizetti created this opera, he was in part paying homage to commedia dell’arte, that particular tradition of crowd-pleasing comedy that went back nearly three centuries. Presentations created in this style often included a foolish old man, Pantalone; a delectably nubile young woman, Colombina; a lovelorn young man, Pierrot; and a devilishly clever servant, full of tricks, who was called Scapino. In the opera the traits of those characters are embodied in their 19th-century equivalents – Pasquale, Norina, Ernesto, and Malatesta.

By the advent of Don Pasquale its composer had already produced most of the massive body of work that would ensure him a never-to-be-challenged niche as the most prolific major opera composer of all time (that word “major” is important – see below). The grand total numbers nearly 70! Donizetti’s sheer facility was nothing short of incredible – he could turn out a full-length opera in a matter of weeks. Third-to-last was Don Pasquale, introduced in 1843 at Paris’s celebrated Théâtre-Italien, where a great many important works were premiered during the first half of the 19th century. Donizetti had been living in Paris for six years; he’d left Naples after a demoralizing experience there: the censors’ objections had kept his magnificent new opera Poliuto from reaching the stage (it went unseen, there or anywhere else, until late 1848, several months after the composer’s death). Of Donizetti’s last 15 operas, nearly half were premiered in Paris, including such contrasting works as the romantic tragedy La favorite and the effervescent comedy La fille du régiment.

It’s believed that as far back as 1815, when he was living in Bologna, Donizetti contracted syphilis. The disease did not begin to affect him seriously for quite a few years, but by the time of Don Pasquale he was already suffering badly. It seems quite amazing to think that, in all his physical and emotional distress, he was able to produce a comedy as uproarious as this one. For its libretto he turned to the one he’d written for an opera composed by Stefano Pavesi, whose output actually exceeded even that of Donizetti! But we know none of his operas today: although his Ser Marc’Antonio (1810) had a successful premiere at La Scala, it faded away quickly – and not unexpectedly – once audiences got to know Don Pasquale.

Donizetti conceived this opera for four of the most celebrated singers of the 19th century. Just as in our own day, the great years of the bel canto composers were graced by four singers who achieved what today we would consider superstardom. They were a soprano (Giulia Grisi), a tenor (Giovanni Matteo de Candia), a baritone (Antonio Tamburini), and a bass (Luigi Lablache). Don Pasquale was a terrific vehicle for all of them. Listening to any page of the opera, one can imagine the degree of vocal polish and vivid projection those glorious singers would have brought to their portrayals onstage.

Donizetti’s rigorous requirements are there for all to hear in the very first aria, one of the opera’s most enduringly popular numbers, “Bella siccome un angelo.” This is Malatesta’s description of the bride he’s found for his friend Don Pasquale. He gives the details with the flair of a great actor, listing the girl’s virtues in music of the most exquisite buoyancy and elegance. Perhaps Antonio Tamburini, unquestionably the most admired baritone of the bel canto era, threw in all

manner of fancy ornamentation, but it really isn’t necessary; Donizettti’s melody stands on its own, working absolute magic in conjuring up a vision of a girl who is “beautiful as an angel, with wonderful eyes and hair, pure of soul, modest – she’s goodness itself!”

Malatesta is barely out of earshot for a few seconds before Pasquale gets his big solo number, which finds him exploding with excitement over the prospect of marriage to the paragon described by the doctor: “Un foco insolito mi sento addosso” – “A strange fire is burning within me – I can’t resist it!” He’s feeling like a young man again, and can already anticipate fathering a whole brood of children. This music has a wonderful vitality about it, but even though Pasquale is a fabulous comic role, it still has to be sung elegantly, as it surely must have been by the singer who created it – full-figured, full-voiced Luigi Lablache, the first truly great comic bass of the 19th century.

We then meet Ernesto, the tenor in this story. He introduces himself with a very challenging two-part aria, punctuated by numerous interjections from his uncle Pasquale. The brief first portion is his response to Pasquale’s rejection of his desire to marry Norina. When he sings those first words, “Sogno soave e casto de’ miei prim’anni, addio” (“Sweet and pure dream of my youth, farewell”), in such wonderfully graceful lines, we once again are encountering the epitome of bel canto expressive refinement. The first Ernesto, Giovanni Matteo de Candia, was known to his vast public simply as Mario. He didn’t just own a sublimely beautiful voice; he was also the most dashingly handsome singer of his time, and certainly the very image of the romantic hero. One can imagine how envious

the other three principals must have been of Mario, the only member of the quartet to be assigned not one, not two, but three major solos in Don Pasquale.

The great quartet that included Lablache, Tamburini, and Mario had as its crowning glory the tenor’s wife, Giulia Grisi, a singer to rank with the most celebrated prima donnas in operatic history. Her pictures show us that she was attractive rather than spectacularly beautiful, but clearly when she was onstage,

you really knew it! More important for bel canto repertoire, however, was her virtuosity. This voice could be relied on to thrill the public, year after year. Grisi was destined for the stage (one of her sisters, Giuditta, was a singer, while a cousin, Carlotta, was the 19th century’s first great ballerina). Seemingly addicted to performing, Grisi sang just about every possible role available to a soprano at the time, and she sang them everywhere.

Grisi was basically a tragedienne, but she must also have been capable of terrific charm onstage, since Norina is charm personified. Of course – as we see in her opening aria and in every other scene – Norina is also one very feisty lady. Only someone with immense confidence in herself (Grisi had that in spades) could convince in an aria that makes abundantly clear how totally the character possesses the goods to capture a man’s heart.

It should be emphasized that, although vocally the four principals each get a memorable episode where they can shine, the opera’s greatness emerges even more vividly in the duets and ensembles. That’s where we really get characterization in a big way. There’s the uproarious Norina/Malatesta duet, in

which he rehearses her in the role she must play. Next are the exhilarating trio, in which demure, fresh-from-the-convent “Sofronia,” although encouraged by Malatesta, flips out when she sees Pasquale, who is enraptured by the sight of her; and the madcap Act-Two finale, in which “Sofronia” turns into a shrew.

The first scene of Act Three brings the lengthy confrontation of Pasquale and his new wife, who behaves rather badly before flouncing off to the theater, leaving her husband alone on their wedding night; and the fabulous revenge duet, in which Pasquale plans his revenge on “Sofronia,” with Malatesta outwardly encouraging him but declaring to himself that poor Pasquale doesn’t know what’s awaiting him. The final scene gives us a heavenly love duet, before “Sofronia”’s real identity is discovered and the happy ending ensues.

All of those episodes are unerringly shaped by Donizetti and his librettist, who created this opera with terrific creativity and theatrical savvy. They also produced a piece in which teamwork comes squarely to the fore. Those four original singers were such enormous stars, each the reigning figure in his or her vocal category. One wonders if they really exhibited the esprit de corps for this opera. Today, in any great production of Don Pasquale, the artists play off each other with a wit and an ease that you can find in the most enjoyable American TV sitcoms. Any good sitcom has a heart beneath all the shenanigans, and Don Pasquale has a heart as well. You feel it when Ernesto is anticipating having to leave Norina forever, and even more so, when the title character, after being slapped by his new bride, laments that his life is over. Pasquale can break his audience’s collective heart at that moment, as Norina quietly murmurs that the game reallyhas gone too far.

Of course, all ends happily for the two lovers, but what about Pasquale? He forgives them and gives his blessing to their union, but we’re left with a bittersweet feeling about his own future: is he going to be alone the rest of his life? This listener, for one, invariably hopes that Pasquale – like Casals and Stokowski– will find himself a loving woman who can lavish on him all the affection he deserves.

Roger Pines, Lyric Opera’s dramaturg, writes frequently for major opera publications and recording companies internationally.

On the Record

Roger Pines, dramaturg at Lyric Opera, recommends these performances.


Bruson, Mei, Lopardo, Allen; Munich Radio Symphony, R. Abbado (RCA/BMG )

Corena, Sciutti, Bottazzo, Panerai; Vienna Philharmonic, cond. Muti (Opera d’Oro)

Bruscantini, Freni, Winbergh, Nucci; La Scala, cond. Muti (EMI Classics)

Sung in English
Shore, Dawson, Banks, Howard; London Philharmonic, cond. Parry (Chandos)

Of special historical interest
Tajo, Noni,Valletti, Bruscantini; Radiotelevisione Italiana, cond. Erede (Bel Canto Society)

Badini, Saraceni, Schipa, Poli; La Scala, cond. Sabajno (Opera d’Oro)


Furlanetto, Focile, Kunde, Gallo; La Scala, cond. Muti, dir. Vizioli (TDK)

Del Carlo, Netrebko, Polenzani, Kwiecien; Metropolitan Opera, cond. Levine, dir. Schenk (Deutsche Grammophon)

Suggestions for Further Reading

The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini by Charles Osborne, Amadeus Press, 1994.
Highly accessible musical commentaries on the works of the bel canto heavy-hitters.

Donizetti and His Operas by William Ashbrook, Cambridge University Press, 1982.
The reference book on Donizetti. The biography carefully reconstructs the composer’s life, and the operas are discussed both generally in terms of period conventions and individually in terms of specific works.

Donizetti and the World of Opera in Italy, Paris, and Vienna in the Early 19th Century by Herbert Weinstock, Pantheon, 1963.
A pioneering study of Donizetti in English. Still useful today for a first approach to the composer.

The Golden Century of Italian Opera from Rossini to Puccini by William Weaver, Thames & Hudson, 1980.
An informative overview from a leading scholar and translator of Italian opera.

The New Grove Masters of Italian Opera: Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Puccini by Philip Gossett, et al., W. W. Norton, 1983.
An essential compendium of entries from the authoritative New Grove Dictionary of Opera pertaining solely to Italy’s illustrious sons.

Don Pasquale

Don Pasquale
by Gaetano Donizetti

© 2012/13 Lyric Opera Commentaries 2012 Lyric Opera of Chicago
Original sound recordings of musical excerpts used by permission of EMI Classics, courtesy of Angel Records, a division of Capitol Records, Inc. All rights reserved. Produced by Mark Travis. Daniel Goldberg, Associate Producer.

Don Pasquale Audio Preview

Sir Andrew Davis previews Don Pasquale 

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What's funnier than an old codger smitten with a beautiful young woman? That's the plot of this Donizetti comedy. But there's much more to it! Hear director Sir Thomas Allen, conductor Stephen Lord, and Marlis Petersen (Norina) discuss this comedy with a heart.

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