opera-inside, don pasquale, gaetano donizetti, synopsis, handlung

The online opera guide to DON PASQUALE

Don Pasquale belongs to the 3 great Buffo operas of the Belcanto period. Despite severe health problems Donizetti created a work with so many great musical ideas in this late work.




Overview and Quick Access






♪ Act I

♪ Act II

♪ Act III

Recording Recommendation



Bella siccome un angelo

Sogno soave e casto

Quel guardo di cavaliere … son anch’io la virtu

Povero Ernesto … Cerchero lontana terra

Cheti cheti immantinente … Vedrai se giovino (Sillabato)

Com’e gentil … tutto è languor

Tormami a dir che m’ami (Duetto)



Roles and Synopsis







Paris, 1843


Don Pasquale, a rich and old bachelor (bass) - Doctor Malatesta, doctor and friend of Don Pasquale (baritone) - Ernesto, nephew of Don Pasquale (tenor) - Norina, young widow (soprano)

The main roles

Violetta Valéry, courtesan in Paris (soprano) - Alfredo Germont, young man (tenor) - Georg Germont, father of Alfredo Germont (baritone) - Baron Duphol, friend / protector of Violetta (baritone)

Recording recommendation

EMI with Mirella Freni, Sesto Bruscantini, Gösta Winbergh and Leo Nucci conducted by Riccardo Muti and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Ambrosian Chorus.








The sad clown

When Donizetti wrote this comedic opera, he was already marked by his illness. We recognize that an artist in an already depressing situation can write his most inspiring comedy. After the loss of his wife and daughters eight years earlier, he is has been plagued by the cruel suffering of syphilis. Nevertheless, he apparently composed Don Pasquale in only 13 days and wrote no less than three operas in this year of 1843. Already two years later his mental condition will be hopeless and five years later he dies, mentally benighted, in his hometown Bergamo.

Knowing Donizetti’s biography and seeing the picture of the old fool in his best clothes, the blood freezes in the veins. Two years later Heinrich Heine reports from a visit to Donizetti in a hospital: “While his melodies cheer the world up with joy, while people sing and trill him everywhere, he himself, a horrible picture of idiocy, sits in a hospital near Paris. Donizetti had only retained a childish consciousness for his toilet: “One had to dress him carefully every day, in full gala, the tailcoat decorated with all his orders; so he sat motionless, his hat in his hand, from morning to late evening” (Heinrich Heine, 1844).




Donizetti himself intervened strongly in creation of the libretto. Ruffini, the creator of the first version, was unnerved by Donizetti’s constant interventions. Donizetti had written some of the musical pieces before and had precise ideas about the plot. The inexperienced Ruffini was finally no longer willing to give his name. The initials M.A. were used for the librettist, which wer those of Donizetti’s agent Michele Accursi, but it is proven that he had not written a line of this work. Nevertheless, he is still partly listed as the official librettist.

The story of Don Pasquale is a typical plot using the characters of the Commedia Dell ‘Arte. Don Pasquale is the rich yet stingy old man who has it in for young women. In the Commedia Dell’Arte he is the pantalone. In addition, there is the cunning Colombina (Norina), and Pierrot in love.



History, premiere and review

Don Pasquale was his 64th opera of a total of 66 works for this genre and was a commission for the Théâtre Italien in Paris. He wrote the opera in an incredible eleven days, but then needed weeks to adjust forthe singers’ wishes. The premiere of the opera became a great success, not least because of the star cast (Grisi and Lablache) and the work was literally performed all over the (western) world in the next three years.










Synopsis: In the home of Don Pasquale, a unmated old man who is a big miser, despite his wealth.

We hear an overture that anticipates many beautiful melodies of the opera. It begins with a few loud chords whose role was to silence the chatty audience. Then we hear an lyrical melody played by a solo cello.

Overture  –  Levine



Synopsis: Don Pasquale is nervous, because he is expecting his family doctor and friend Dr. Malatesta to discuss an important matter. When he finally appears, Don Pasquale excitedly asks if he has found a bride. Malatesta affirms and tells of a lovable and modest young woman he has chosen for him.

Donizetti was a composer who was always a modernizer.  With Don Pasquale, Donizetti renewed his means of expression. For example, in his days, it was customary to place a choir after the overture to introduce the audience to the milieu of the opera. Instead, we see the interior of Don Pasquale’s house  with the protagonist. Malatestas aria “Bella siccome un angelo” is also out of the ordinary. A classical Buffo number would be expected. But this aria in which he describes with beautiful words his sister, hardly fits into a Buffo opera. Pulsating sixteenths accompany him, and almost religiously he describes the woman as an angel. With two beautiful ritardandi (on Mattino and on conquide) he praises her virtues and thus makes Don Pasquale’s mouth water. After a transition, the opening melody returns tenderly and almost humbly, but Malatesta is soon no longer able to hold back his enthusiasm for his sister and with great ornamentation he promises Don Pasquale to fall in love with her (che v’innamora). Finally, with a full triumphant voice and (in the repetition) with a cadenza, Malatesta prophesies a happy heart (“un beato cor”) to his friend. A great introductory aria for Malatesta!

Bella siccome un angelo  –  Nucci


Don Pasquale’s rejuvenation

Synopsis:  Pasquale asks her name. Malatesta tells him it is his sister Sofronia. She has just left the monastery and will pass by today. Pasquale is enthusiastic, he wishes to see her immediately. When Malatesta leaves the room, the old man feels like twenty again.

Un foco insolito  –  Corbelli


Synopsis: His nephew Ernesto appears. Don Pasquale is a wealthy man and wants to bequeath his inheritance to him, but on condition that he marries respectably and richly. Don Pasquale has already chosen a candidate. But Ernesto loves the poor but demanding Norina. However, Don Pasquale doesn’t accept her and he tells him that if he marries her, he will disinherit him. When Ernesto rejects Pasquale’s candidate, the old man tells him that he will marry again and that Ernesto will go away empty-handed. At first Ernesto reacts amused.

In this passage Donizetti lets the wind instruments accompany the singer with giggling dotted notes.

We hear Gösta Winbergh, who received excellent reviews as Ernesto in this production by Riccardo Muti.

Prender moglie  –  Bruscantini / Winbergh


Synopsis: When Ernesto realises that the old man is serious about his marriage plans, he suffers a snub. He was counting on the money to set up his own home with Norina.

For many, Juan Diego Florez is the great Ernesto of our time. His interpretation brings out Ernesto’s emotional state in a great way. This duet perfectly contrasts the comedy of Old Don Pasquale with the his deep despair.

Sogno soave e casto – Florez / Raimondi



Norina‘s famous Aria “Quel guardo di cavaliere”

Synopsis: He asks his uncle to discuss the matter with Malatesta. When he learns that the bride herself is Malatesta’s sister Sofronia, he feels betrayed because he believes Malatesta to be his friend. In Norina’s house. She reads a love story with entanglements. She smiles, because she herself knows all the tricks to make a man’s heart beat faster.

The fact that Norina reads a love story is a contemporary side blow , since such “penny novels” were incredibly popular at the time. This piece is quite interesting from the point of view of music history. We know that Chopin admired Donizetti and he tried to imitate Donizetti’s Belcanto style on the piano. The first part of the well-known aria begins as in a Chopin Nocturne. Over a rocking 6/8 accompaniment, Norina sings a cantilena with emotional ritardandi. The following well-known theme is accompanied by a dotted rhythm. After a third part the dotted melody comes back goes up to a B and then in “vivasi ah” the aria ends with a high C followed by a 7 bars long trill. A wonderful aria for a virtuoso coloratura soprano.

We hear this aria in the interpretation by Anna Netrebko. Her Norina at the MET in New York was a great event. She was able to play her comedic and singing skills to the full.  As already in Donizetti’s other Buffo masterpiece “Elisir d’amore” she was able to inspire the audience with her charisma and stage presence.

Quel guardo di cavaliere … son anch’io la virtu  –  Netrebko


In the second recording we hear Amelita Galli-Curci, one of the great coloratura sopranos of the twenties. She was regarded as the successor of Adelina Patti. It was said that Galli-Curci didn’t have a formal  singing education, but that she learned to sing by listening to a nightingale. The trills from the second part of the aria are wonderful and actually remind of the nightingale. A tip, you should definitely listen to the duet of the third act (see further below).

Quel guardo di cavaliere … son anch’io la virtu  –  Galli-Curci


We hear a third recording from Lucia Popp. Her interpretation of the first part is almost dreamy. The trill in the second part is great.

Quel guardo di cavaliere … son anch’io la virtu  –  Popp



Malatesta’s scheme

Synopsis: A servant brings her a message from Ernesto. She learns the news of Pasquale’s marriage plans and that Ernesto has decided to leave Europe out of desperation. When Malatesta comes by, he encounters an desperate Norina. When Malatesta finds out the reason, he laughs. He explains her that the whole thing had been set up by him to outwit the old man. The sister doesn’t even exist. His plan is that Norina herself should play Malata’s sister. Don Pasquale could be tricked into arranging a marriage in his house. She would have to play a modest naive girl. When Don Pasquale signs the marriage contract, he will be at her mercy. Norina is enthusiastic about the plan.

Mi volete fiera  –  Freni / Bruscantini








Ernesto ist deeply sad – the aria with the trumpet solo

Synopsis: At night at Don Pasquale’s house. Ernesto sits on packed suitcases. He feels abandoned and sad because it has become impossible to marry Norina.

Listening to the music of Don Pasquale one is amazed how far this music is from Wagner. With “Cerchero lontana terra” we hear a classical number of the Italian opera, namely that of a young man with lovesickness. At the same time Wagner writes his Flying Dutchman and already 2 years later the German should already compose Tannhäuser and start the way to the musical drama. Donizetti’s heroes are taken from life and are far away from Wagner’s world of legends.
Donizetti presents us with something unusual in this aria. A deeply sad trumpet solo leads us into the mood of Ernesto. Normally the listener does not associate this instrument with these feelings. Donizetti probably deliberately provoked this effect to emphasize the complexity of the story, which is supposed to be more than a mere comedy of confusion.

Florez presents us with a vulnerable but not a sentimental Ernesto. The recitative of the first part is interpreted in a great way and shows the despair (“Povero Ernesto”) of the abandoned and deceived. And at the end of the long aria he shows a flawless and effortless high C.

Povero Ernesto … Cerchero lontana terra  –  Florez


Fischer (“Große Stimmen”) is enthusiastic about Tito Schipa’s interpretation: “Once you hear Schipa here, you are spoiled for all other Donizetti interpreters once and for all. Even if they bear the most famous names. From his singing comes a magic that cannot be described by clichés like golden voice.

Povero Ernesto … Cerchero lontana terra  –  Schipa



Synopsis: It is morning and Don Pasquale has thrown himself into his best clothes in joyful expectation of the bride. She appears accompanied by Malatesta. Don Pasquale is taken with her modesty and Norina visibly likes the evil game.

Via da brava  –  Netrebko / Kwiecien / Del Carlo


Synopsis: When pretty Sofronia lifts her veil, it’s all up with Don Pasquale. He wants the notary to appear immediately. Of course, Malatesta has his notary already waiting outside the door. There is one problem. When the married couple sign, there is only one witness: Malatesta. At this moment Ernesto bursts in and everything goes haywire. Don Pasquale tells him with relish that he has to act as a witness of the marriage. Ernesto looks at the bride and doesn’t believe his eyes when he sees Norina. Malatesta quickly tries to introduce him to the plan.

Indietro mascalzoni


Synopsis: When the marriage certificate is signed, Sofronia suddenly changes. The modest nun becomes a monster. She bullies poor Don Pasquale around and when she chooses Ernesto as her companion for a walk, he is totally flabbergasted and Ernesto amuses himself deliciously.

We hear the beautiful quartet “e rimasto la impietrato” in the recording by Riccardo Muti.

E rimasto la impietrato  –  Freni / Bruscantini / Nucci / Winbergh


Synopsis: Next, Sofronia asks to see the servants. To Pasquale’s horror, she decides to double their salary and to hire more staff. Don Pasquale realises that he has been outwitted and Ernesto rejoices.

Sono tradito beffegiato  –  Corena / Peters









Sofronia has taken the lead

Synopsis: Meanwhile the house has changed beyond all recognition. It is newly furnished and there are servants all over. Don Pasquale is stunned and goes through all the bills. When Sofronia appears, she is dressed for theatre. When Don Pasquale wants to refuse her a visit to the theatre, she slaps him in the face. Pasquale collapses and Norina feels some pity. But the plan has to be carried out. As she walks out, she deliberately drops a piece of paper. Don Pasquale reads it. It’s a letter from Ernestos for a midnight tryst in the garden.

Signorina, in tanta fretta … Via, caro sposino  –  Evans / Watson



The famous Sillabato duet oft he buffo basses

Synopsis: Pasquale swears revenge and calls for Malatesta, with whom he wants to draw up a plan. They decide to secretly ambush Sofronia and Ernesto. With this proof he could then throw the unloved wife out of the house.

This duet has become famous with its fast sung syllables, the Presto-Sillabato and is one of the absolute highlights of this opera (starting at 5.00 in the following recording).

Cheti cheti immantinente … Vedrai se giovino  –  Smith / Evans



The night scene: the big showdown in the garden

Donizetti himself has done a lot of work on the libretto. Ruffini, the creator of the original libretto, was unnerved by Donizetti’s constant interventions and was no longer willing to give his name. The initials M.A. were used for the librettist which were those of  Michele Accursi, who demonstrably did not write a single line of this work. Nevertheless, he is still sometimes listed as an official librettist.

Synopsis: It’s night in the garden. Ernesto sings a serenade as watchword.

We hear another beautiful aria by Donizetti for tenor Ernesto, which you can hear again in the interpretation by Juan Diego Florez.

Com’e gentil … tutto è languor – Florez


We hear another interpretation from the tenorissimo di grazia Tito Schipa, whose voice has an unforgettable melancholic charm.

Com’e gentil … tutto è languor  –  Schipa



The great love duet

Synopsis: The two come together and conjure up their love.

We hear the legendary duet partner Tito Schipa and Amelita Galli-Gurci in a wonderful recording of this duet.

Tormami a dir che m’ami  –  Schipa / Galli-Gurci


We hear a beautiful recording with the dream couple of the 2000s Juan Diego Florez and Anna Netrebko.

Tormami a dir che m’ami  –  Netrebko / Florez 


The moral of the story…

Synopsis: When Malatesta and Pasquale arrive  with a lantern in their hand and want to surprise them, Ernesto manages to disappear. Don Pasquale confronts Sofronia, but she denies everything. Don Pasquale wants to chase her out of the house, but Sofronia refuses. Nothing can be done without proof. Malatesta casually mentions that tomorrow another woman comes into the household, it is Ernesto’s lover Norina. When Sofronia hears the name Norina, she explains that she can never live under the same roof as this woman. Don Pasquale now smells his chance. Malatesta’s plan seems to work out and he fetches Ernesto, and Don Pasquale accepts her marriage. He even agrees to give them a dowry just to get rid of the monster Sofronia. Now Malatesta ends the masquerade. Don Pasquale shows generosity and forgives them for the evil game. He gives his blessing to the marriage. Norina presents the moral of the story: Who wants to marry in old age, makes of himself only a fool.

The waltz had been born 20 years earlier in Vienna and had conquered the European continent. In Don Pasquale, Donizetti set a monument to the waltz in many pieces, including Rondo in the finale.

Rondo Finale  –  Niese   





Recording Recommendation


EMI with Mirella Freni, Sesto Bruscantini, Gösta Winbergh and Leo Nucci under the direction of Riccardo Muti and the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Ambrosian Chorus.




Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to DON PASQUALE by Gaetano Donizetti.


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