The characters

Ernesto

Ernesto

Voice: Tenor

  • Nephew of Don Pasquale
  • Youthful
  • Enthusiastic
  • Requited lover

Premiere cast: Signor Mario

Commedia del arte character type: Pierrot

In contemporary culture the Pierrot is often portrayed as a sad, pining clown.

Norina

Norina

Voice: Soprano

  • Young widow
  • Impatient
  • Genuine and affectionate

Premiere cast: Signora Grisi

Commedia del arte character type: Columbina

The Columbina Character is often smart, manipulative yet of a lower class.

Don Pasquale

Don Pasquale

Voice: Bass

  • Elderly, old-fashioned bachelor
  • Economical
  • Credulous
  • Obstinate
  • A good fellow at bottom

Premiere cast: Signor Lablache

Commedia del arte character type: Pantalone

The Pantalone was one of the most important characters of Italian comic operas – often wealthy, greedy and naïve.

Dr Malatesta

Dr Malatesta

Voice type: Baritone

  • A skilled strategist
  • Jocular
  • Resourceful
  • Doctor and friend of Don Pasquale
  • Very close friend of Ernesto

Premiere cast: Signor Tamburini

Commedia del arte character type: Scapino

Scapino is related to the English word, “escape”. The character is a schemer and proud of it.

The chorus

The chorus

One of the major developments in Italian opera during the 19th century was the emergence of the dramatic chorus.

While operas had long included big choral numbers at the end of acts, it was only around this time composers began to treat the chorus almost as another character – the chorus could add its own drama and musical personality to the opera.

The plot

Early 19th-century Rome

Act I

Don Pasquale is furious with his nephew

Don Pasquale has chosen a rich girl for his nephew to marry. However, things don’t go to plan as Ernesto refuses to marry her, and instead has his heart set on the impoverished widow Norina.

As punishment, Don Pasquale decides to marry for himself

Despite being an old man, Don Pasquale decides to get married himself in order to disinherit Ernesto from his fortunes. Don Pasquale seeks help from Dr Malatesta.

Despite thinking Pasquale a fool, Dr Malatesta tells him he has found him a wife already. She is pretty, modest and also Dr Malatesta’s sister.

Dr Malatesta has a cunning plan

Dr Malatesta tells Norina of his plan. She’s to pretend to be Dr Malatesta’s sister and the doctor will arrange for his cousin to perform a fake wedding ceremony. Once they’re married, Norina is to make the Don’s life so difficult he’ll be desperate to get rid of her and welcome Ernesto back home.

Act II

Norina is introduced to Don Pasquale as ‘Sofronia’

She acts submissive and shy, and charms Pasquale instantly. The cousin arrives to perform the fake wedding. Ernesto comes to say his goodbyes, but is horrified to see Norina marrying his uncle. Malatesta quickly tells him to settle down, and that everything will be alright.

‘Sofronia’ makes Don Pasquale’s life a nightmare

Once married, ‘Sofronia’ quickly becomes demanding and controlling. She doubles the servants’ wages and takes over Don Pasquale’s house.

Act III

‘Sofronia’ goes out to meet her lover

Pasquale watches in horror as his house fills up with new dresses, hats and furniture. 'Sofronia' is ready to go out, and when Pasquale tries to stop her, she tells him to go to bed and slaps him.

As she leaves she drops a letter on the floor. Pasquale reads it and finds out she is planning to meet a lover in the garden that night. Pasquale enlists the help of Dr Malatesta to ambush their secret meeting.

Don Pasquale delivers an ultimatum

Norina meets Ernesto that evening, aware that Pasquale and Malatesta are watching behind a bush. Pasquale emerges and Ernesto slips away. ‘Sofronia’ denies her guilt as Pasquale demands ‘Sofronia’ to leave.

Dr Malatesta jumps in, saying that if she doesn’t leave, she’ll have to put up with another young woman in the house – Norina, whom Pasquale’s nephew is going to marry. This doesn’t bode well for ‘Sofronia’, who agrees to leave. Pasquale arranges for Ernesto to marry Norina immediately.

The truth is revealed

Ernesto appears and ‘Sofronia’ turns back into Norina. Everything is revealed to Don Pasquale, who forgives the youngsters and is relieved his ordeal of marriage is over.

The music

In the century before Donizetti, Italian operas came in two main varieties:

Opera buffa

  • Plots about ordinary people
  • Light-hearted subject matter and musical style

Opera seria

  • Grand, impressive characters
  • Equally grand, impressive music

In the 19th century the lines between the two varieties became blurred.

In Don Pasquale Donizetti used elements of opera seria alongside a basic framework of opera buffa.

You can hear this operatic crossover from the start of the opera:

Opera buffa: The orchestral overture begins with a loud, fast and energetic outburst.

Opera seria: The energetic start is immediately followed by a beautiful melody, neither entirely happy nor sad, but slow, gentle, and marked ‘dolce’ (sweet).

Even in Donizetti’s time people wanted to be able to buy scores of the latest operas. Copyists and editors turned Donizetti’s own handwritten score into printed versions, sometimes making mistakes, and sometimes copying Donizetti’s own mistakes, which were gradually passed down to the scores used today.

Editors or conductors familiar with Donizetti’s musical style and language have to interpret what the composer wrote down, deciding what his markings mean.