A guide to the social context

Imagine seeing Don Pasquale at its premiere. You’re most likely living in Paris, well-off and dressed immaculately for the occasion.

Yet what would’ve been happening behind the scenes around that time?

Making an opera in 1843

The process of commissioning, composing and staging an opera in early 19th-century Italy took much less time than you might expect.

Late September 1842

Donizetti signs a contract for the new work.

Libretto

He offers 500 francs to Giovanni Ruffini to help him adapt an existing opera libretto. Donizetti already has strong ideas of what he wants from the new operatic text, so constantly interferes in the writer’s task. Eventually, Ruffini refuses to allow his name to appear on the printed libretto, claiming he barely recognises his own work.

Composition

Donizetti boasted to a friend he had written the score of Don Pasquale in 11 days. However, it’s most likely he finished the singers’ parts and the bass line in that time, as it was conventional for composers to add orchestral parts during rehearsals at the time.

A mere three months later…

3 January 1843 – Don Pasquale has its first performance.

Costumes and choruses

Today we’re used to operas being performed in both modern and historical dress. However, during the mid-19th century it was considered a faux pas to have singers dressed in the same manner as their audience – it would have implied there were real-life Don Pasquales sitting in the audience.

Yet for the premiere of Don Pasquale at the Théâtre Italien, Donizetti wanted his characters to dress as contemporary middle-class Italians.

Lablache, who played Don Pasquale, refused, and the librettist Ruffini insisted the story needed costumes from a much earlier time.

In the face of such opposition Donizetti gave up on his idea for a contemporary setting.

The profile of the first cast

It was conventional at the time for composers to write new operas with specific singers in mind. Star performers would have been hired by an opera house even before a new work was commissioned, and the opera would have been tailored to showcase their particular talents.

Donizetti composed Don Pasquale with four huge operatic stars of the period in mind:

Giulia Grisi

The celebrity soprano

Giovanni Matteo Mario (‘Mario’)

The famous tenor – and Grisi’s partner

Luigi Lablache

The veteran bass

Antonio Tamburini

The heartthrob baritone

Donizetti had worked with these singers before and was familiar with their voices. The singers had also worked together on numerous occasions.

A winning team

Grisi, Lablache and Tamburini were three of the four singers known as the Puritani quartet – the most popular vocal group of their day. In 1835 they had premiered an opera by Donizetti called Marin Faliero. It was Donizetti’s first new work for the theatre that would later commission Don Pasquale.

First performances

By the time of Don Pasquale opera was already becoming one of Italy’s most valuable exports to the rest of the world.

Donizetti's new opera could spread across Europe with almost unprecedented speed, thanks to new railways, faster steam shipping, and a new international audience hungry to hear the latest hits from Italy.

Don Pasquale has remained popular for over 150 years of fluctuating opera tastes.

So what was it that made this opera such a runaway success?

Social setting

Don Pasquale is set in 19th-century Italy and audiences reacted to its combination of new, antique, serious and comic. They would have identified with various aspects of the plot…

Unmarried women

Unmarried women had no legal status in Italy – meaning they couldn’t own possessions or inherit money or property. As a result, the issue of marriage was an extremely important one for young women: finding a husband was their only means to have any financial independence.

Widows

Norina is a young widow. She’s independent and can go wherever she likes – and even pretend to get married. In contrast, unmarried girls and women in 19th-century Italy would either have needed a minder or would have been stuck indoors.

Inheritance

Many wealthy young men were simply brought up to inherit money. As Pasquale’s heir, Ernesto should have respected his uncle’s wishes. However, in this opera the audience sides with Ernesto as the Don is only marrying out of spite.

As in many comic operas, Don Pasquale's plot and characters are based on an existing model from a much older Italian genre – a kind of pantomime called commedia dell'arte.