It was a stylish, if not sparkling, "Don Pasquale" the Metropolitan Opera presented at Wolf Trap last night. A cast of familiar figures offered experience and polish rather than bravura.
This production was a new one, unveiled in December as a parting vehicle for Beverly Sills. The time of the opera has been shifted from the 1840s of Donizetti's directions and the Met's three previous productions to the early 1900s. The stage has been made smaller by a pair of golden lacework frames that create an intimate space wherein the story unfolds. Roses and butterflies and various rococo decorations abound, giving the set the look of an old-fashioned greeting card. The frames formed a charming, if busy, setting, except in the last scene, when they distracted from the effect of the muted evening colors.
Recreating their roles in the new production were Nicolai Gedda as Ernesto and the Swedish beritone Hakan Hagegard, who made his debut at the Met in the role of Dr. Malatesta.
Gedda was in elegant form, both vocally and dramatically. For whatever his voice may have lacked in sensuousness he more than compensated by the sensitivity of his singing. It was pure pleasure to hear the subtletly with which he shaped phrase after phrase. His characterization of Ernesto, who spends much of his time moping and moving about the periphery of events, was exceptionally thorough.
Hagegard brought an impeccable sense of timing to both his singing and his acting. A handsome young man, he knows how to use his pleasing, if not large, voice, with intelligence and flair.
Roberta Peters was a spirited Norgina, imaginatively using a variety of timbres to reflect shifting moods. Despite some problems in the upper registers, she handled most of the coloratura passages with exceptional musicality. If there was not the effortless agility of the past, there were, nonetheless, some beautifully expressive melodic lines.
Italo Tajo's Don Pasquale was a masterpiece of acting. Rather than portraying the traditional fat buffoon, Tajo created a touching portrait of an aging aristocrat making a fool of himself although not himself a fool. He used his limited vocal resources with consummate skill, but all too often the results were closer to speaking than singing, a factor that reduced the musical effervescence considerably.
Nicola Rescigno, who made his conducting debut at the Met with the new Don Pasquale production, directed the orchestra with precision and good taste, although without notable excitement.