Glyndebourne 2013: Don Pasquale - Do I hear a waltz?

Pay close attention, and you'll hear that the big Italian heart of Donizetti's comic masterpiece beats in three-four time.

Watch Glyndebourne's current production of Don Pasquale here, available on demand until 31 August.

Why does Don Pasquale stick to our ribs more than most bel canto-era comedies? Its zany characters and situations are just as deeply indebted to the back-alley antics of commedia dell'arte and its ancestor, Roman comedy, as those of, say, Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816). Yet Donizetti's final comedy seems something more, at once a summation and an apotheosis of Italian comic opera.

Don Pasquale (1843) was created at a time during which the rollicking Rossinian opera buffa was ceding to cozy, sentimental opere semiserie like Bellini's La sonnambula (1831), in which the happy endings cost some sighs and tears along the way.

Don Pasquale is also redolent of another contemporary fashion, the Viennese waltz. In 1838, Donizetti had moved to Paris, where Chopin was then in the midst of transforming this newly popular ballroom dance into virtuoso piano works of astonishing expressive range. Four years later, after the triumph of his melodramma Linda di Chamounix at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna, Donizetti was appointed Court Composer to Emperor Ferdinand I, which obliged him to live in the Austrian capital for six months a year.

Small wonder that Don Pasquale, which had its premiere in 1843 at the Théâtre Italien in Paris, is suffused with the notoriously infectious strains of the Viennese waltz, whether deliberately or subliminally. The waltz was the wanton 19th-century successor to the courtly 18th-century minuet, by way of the humble Austrian Ländler, an earthy 18th-century country dance in three-four rhythm.

Remember the scene in The Sound of Music when Maria and Captain von Trapp finally realise they're in love? They're dancing the Ländler, gazing into each other's eyes and touching for the first time.

In the early 19th century, scandal had erupted when 'respectable' couples began tripping the dance floor in such fashion. When England's Prince Regent (later King George IV) held a ball in 1816, The London Times wrote, 'We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last ... It is quite sufficient to cast one's eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies in their dance to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females.'

Only in the mid-1800s, when the Ländler's heavy, rustic accents had morphed into the lighthearted glide of the ballroom waltz, was the dance allowed in the salons of polite society. It swiftly became the musical signature of the Austrian Empire, courtesy of Johann Strauss and family.

If you're a regular opera-goer, chances are you hear a lot of waltzes – and not just where you might expect to, in Viennese operettas like Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow, or in nostalgic evocations of Old Vienna like Der Rosenkavalier, which actually takes place long before the waltz ever existed and certainly long before it was considered civilised enough for noble salons. The waltz seems to have been the favourite dance of Puccini, who often used it to give his characters an excuse to touch each other, as in Il tabarro or La fanciulla del West.

The flamboyant 'Musetta's Waltz' from La bohème is a veritable musical roadmap of seduction. And in La rondine, Puccini's Viennese operetta manqué, the waltz is the bittersweet musical milieu of the entire piece. The captivating dance also turns up in operas as diverse as Faust, Eugene Onegin and even Elektra, where the eponymous heroine literally dances herself to death with an ecstatically grotesque waltz.

In Don Pasquale, the supple, seductive rhythm of this heartiest of all dance forms serves as a recurring symbol, Donizetti's code for youth. Soon after 'Bella siccome un angelo' ('Lovely as an angel'), Malatesta's shameless sales pitch for his bogus sister Sofronia, Pasquale trades in his foursquare patter and co-opts the Doctor's triple metre in his jubilant reply, 'Un fuco insolito' ('An unfamiliar fire'), just to show us he's young at heart. From that point on, virtually all of the 'hit tunes' in Don Pasquale are waltzes: Norina's introductory cavatina, the lily-gilding 'Quel guardo il cavaliere' ('That glance struck the knight') and her breezy Act II exit tune 'Via, cara sposino' ('Away, little husband!'); 'Aspetta, aspetta, cara sposina' ('Just you wait, little wife!'), the show-stopping, proto-Gilbertand-Sullivan patter duet for Pasquale and Malatesta in Act II; the sublime 'Tornami a dir che m'ami' ('Come tell me you love me') love duet in ethereal thirds that precedes the final scene; and, finally, the irrepressible 'punchline' in the opera's finale ultimo, 'Bravo, bravo, Don Pasquale' ('Well done, Don Pasquale!').

For its musical elegance, moments of tender sentiment and humanisation of stock commedia characters, Don Pasquale has sometimes been called 'Mozartian'. Though it may rightfully accept this most sublime of compliments, Pasquale, with its stringaccompanied recitatives, progressive musical continuity and 19thcentury sensibility, also looks forward to that greatest of all Italian comedies, Verdi's Falstaff (1893), written 50 years later.

Like Falstaff, Pasquale is a valedictory work, the 65th of the prolific Donizetti's 67 operas. In both operas, a composer ending his career bequeaths us a tale of a senior citizen with romantic delusions who is outwitted by younger folks armed with love and brains. Both operas also boast an uncommonly spunky, self-reliant heroine, and both temper the old protagonist's final rude awakening with a sweet but clear-eyed reconciliation. And as sui generis as Falstaff is, it is hard to imagine that Verdi did not have Don Pasquale in mind when he wrote his great comedy. The madcap final scenes of both works are prefaced with moonlit tenor serenades followed by nocturne-like soprano-tenor love duets. For this age-burnished vista on young love alone, we may continue to cherish both Italian operatic masterworks.

This essay is reprinted from Glyndebourne's 2013 programme, with kind permission.

Cori Ellison

The GuardianTramp

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