Don Pasquale

About the Composer


Gaetano Donizetti

Gaetano Donizetti was born in 1797 to a poor family in Bergamo, in northern Italy near the Swiss Alps. Although no one in the family had ever shown any musical aptitude, young Gaetano was to become one of Italy’s most important composers—and his brother Giuseppe (who relocated to Istanbul) became chief of music to the armies of the all-but-defunct Ottoman Empire.

When Donizetti displayed phenomenal keyboard skills at an early age, a local composer took him on as a pupil. Oddly enough, the man who would write some of the most lyrical, singable music in all opera was himself a terrible singer. The boy’s mentor set him up with his first opera commission, a comedy for an opera house in Venice. But just as his career in opera was getting going, Donizetti came of age to be drafted into the Austrian army. (As a native of northern Italy, he was a citizen of the Austrian Empire.) A wealthy lady from Donizetti’s hometown came to the composer’s rescue and paid for him not to have to enter the army.

For the next twenty years, Donizetti would scurry up and down the Italian peninsula, writing a vast number of operas for all the important theaters. He and another composer, Vincenzo Bellini, were rivals for the crown of the last great opera composer, Gioachino Rossini, until Bellini died young. Donizetti was a skilled craftsman and a hard-nosed, practical man of the theater. Although he took a great deal of care to get his libretti perfect, he was known to reuse music from his old operas when composing new ones. He believed an opera was something that happened on a stage in front of an audience, not something that existed on paper. As a result, he tended to rewrite his operas extensively when he toured them to different cities, tailoring his music to the abilities of the singers he was working with. Many of Donizetti’s greatest successes came in Naples, where the opera industry had been booming for hundreds of years. While producing an opera in Rome, Donizetti met Virginia Vasselli, who later became his wife.

Donizetti wrote both comic and tragic operas, as was typical in his day. Famed for infusing his comedies with a touch of pathos or momentary seriousness, Donizetti wrote (among others) two comedies—The Elixir of Love and Don Pasquale—which are still staples of the opera repertory. Many of his serious operas, like the Tudor trilogy Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, draw their stories (loosely) from European history. His masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor rapidly became the most popular opera of its day.

After Bellini’s death, Donizetti was the undisputed king of the Italian opera scene, and as such began venturing abroad to conquer foreign opera houses. In Paris, he played his Italian operas at the Théâtre des Italiens and wrote in French enormous grand operas for the Paris Opéra and happy little comedies (such as The Daughter of the Regiment, another repertory staple) for the Opéra-Comique. The understandably peeved French composer Hector Berlioz—who was never too popular in France himself—summed up the situation: "One can no longer speak of the opera houses of Paris, only of the opera houses of M. Donizetti." A few years later, Donizetti conquered the principal opera theater in Vienna. For a short period in the early 1840s, he was the most important composer in Europe.

Donizetti was an agreeable, pleasant man who went through a great deal of personal tragedy. His parents died within a week of each other, and his wife died of cholera shortly thereafter. Donizetti himself began losing his mind in 1845, and before long it became clear that he had syphilis. His children had all died, so a nephew looked after him during his few remaining years—a period in which he could barely carry on a conversation, much less compose an opera. He died in his hometown of Bergamo in 1848.

The Comedy of Don Pasquale

Commedia dell’arte The comic story of Don Pasquale comes out of the centuries-old Italian form of improvised comedy known as commedia dell’arte. Think of commedia as live Warner Brothers cartoons. You know how all those cartoons have the same characters and the same basic gags, even if the plots vary slightly from cartoon to cartoon? How the Road Runner is always leading the coyote to fall off a cliff, and Bugs Bunny is forever dressing up in drag and fooling Elmer Fudd? That’s how commedia dell’arte works too. Famous commedia characters include Pantaloon, the stingy old man; his best friend, the incompetent Doctor; a mooning pair of young lovers; and any number of scheming servants. (The cast list of Don Pasquale reads like an outline for a commedia farce.) Commedia plays were by and large improvised; the actors used their stock jokes and bits of slapstick to flesh out a simple plot, usually about young lovers outwitting their foolish parents. They then toured their shows from town to town. The roots of commedia dell’arte reach back to the comedy of ancient Rome, and the form itself reached its heyday during the Italian Renaissance. It profoundly influenced not only comic opera but also the plays of Shakespeare and Molière.

Opera Buffa Comedy and opera were made for each other. In the early days of bel canto opera, there were two kinds of opera: opera seria, which featured noble, heroic characters, a happy ending, and not a trace of humor; and opera buffa, which featured more approachable characters, a happy ending, and lots of humor (unhappy endings became standard much later). Both feature plenty of singing, but the role of the music changes. In opera seria, the music helps us experience the passions and dilemmas of the characters; in opera buffa, the music functions as a laugh track. Great comic composers like Mozart, Rossini, and Donizetti knew how to write music that makes it easy for an audience to laugh, music that is quick and reassuring and often funny in and of itself.

A typical musical device you’ll hear in comic opera is patter, where the words are sung at breakneck speed, like tongue-twisters, usually to a very simple tune. Patter is most often sung by the lower voices, and Don Pasquale features one of the great patter duets, in this case between Don Pasquale and Dr. Malatesta, bass and baritone, who compete to see who can sing faster. The other standard musical device to listen for in comic opera is ensemble writing. In serious operas, ensembles are used sparingly, because they tend to interrupt the forward thrust of the story. But ensembles are the lifeblood of comic operas, because nothing expresses mounting confusion, frenzy, and hilarious misunderstanding better than those moments where all the characters are singing at once.

The Culture in the Comedy Don Pasquale began as improvised comedy: the 1840s equivalent of Saturday Night Live. It’s unlikely that large audiences will be enjoying today’s SNL sketches in 160 years, because that kind of humor is specific and topical, not timeless. The reason large audiences attend Don Pasquale today is because of Donizetti’s great music, not because they’re expecting non-stop laughs. In fact, the basic joke of Don Pasquale—the skirt-chasing old man who is abused by his wife—is no longer particularly funny. That’s how much Western culture has changed over those 160 years. Yet we can use this comedy as a lens to learn about the culture that created it. All humor works by setting up an expectation and then reversing it. Homer Simpson is funny because he’s so extremely the opposite of a model American. We constantly parody those in power—parents, bosses, or the President—because it’s fun to invert the power structure, to make those we trust look untrustworthy. Thus, in comic opera, when young love wins out over age and money, it’s because the culture in general went in the other direction. In real life, age and money held the reins, and young love really only had a chance in the topsy-turvy world of comic opera. Don Pasquale sheds a particular light on Donizetti’s intensely patriarchal society. To an Italian of Donizetti’s day, a story about a woman who beats her husband and refuses to let him dominate her was just about the funniest thing in the world, because in that culture, everyone would have assumed the opposite was the natural order.

The Music of Don Pasquale

Don Pasquale is a masterpiece of bel canto opera. This term, "bel canto," is Italian for "beautiful singing" and describes the style of opera popular in Italy in the early nineteenth century. Three composers excelled at creating bel canto opera: Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti.

But aren’t all operas supposed to feature beautiful singing? Yes, but in some operas the drama or the orchestra or the sets can pull focus. In bel canto, the singing—and the specific singer at your performance—is always the center of attention. When you go to a bel canto opera, you can expect the singers to make wonderful, crazy, serene, hilarious, and beautiful sounds—sometimes clear and simple like a songbird, sometimes wild and furious like a blizzard, but always fireworks for the voice. Donizetti tailored his music to the talents of the singers at each particular performance, going so far as to rewrite or even substitute entire arias based on the needs of a particular singer.

You will hear three different types of singing in a bel canto opera. Each one tells the story and moves the plot along in a slightly different way:

Recitative. Bel canto operas are much like musical comedies, which feature talking and singing. But in bel canto, the talking is actually sung—sung very quickly on just a few notes, accompanied only by intermittent chords from the harpsichord, piano, or orchestra, not melodies. Recitative moves the story of the opera along at a good clip. In recitative, the words are more important than the music.

Aria. An aria ia a solo song for an individual performer. Time stops and one character expresses a personal feeling: love, joy, sadness, hope, despair, etc. Many bel canto arias have a beautiful melody, and the singer takes the opportunity to show off his or her lovely voice. Others are exciting or funny or tell stories that are relevant to the plot. Don Pasquale opens with a lovely aria for Dr. Malatesta. In the next scene, when we first meet the leading lady, or prima donna, she sings an elaborate aria (as was the custom in nineteenth-century Italian opera). The opera also features arias for the other characters, including much heartfelt romantic music for Ernesto.

Ensemble. When more than one character sings at the same time it is called an ensemble. Comic operas always feature ensembles, because there is something intrinsically funny about a great many people all talking at once. Memorable ensembles from Don Pasquale include a gorgeous romantic duet for the lovebirds and two hilarious “patter” duets. Most of the second act is a long ensemble at the wedding of Don Pasquale and “Sofronia:” duet becomes trio, then quartet, then quintet, faster and faster, until by the end everything is madness, confusion, and delightfully hilarious music.

Recommended Recordings

Opera d'Oro / Conductor: Riccardo Muti
Norina: Graziella Sciutti
Ernesto: Pietro Bottazzo
Malatesta: Rolando Panerai
Don Pasquale: Fernando Corena

Erato / Conductor: Gabriele Ferro
Norina: Barbara Hendricks
Ernesto: Luca Canonici
Malatesta: Gino Quilico
Don Pasquale: Gabriel Bacquier

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