King of Comedy
Otto Schenk’s 2006 staging of Donizetti’s bel canto gem Don Pasquale is a dazzling display of comedic prowess from a director better known at the Met for his work in heavier repertoire. Below is a look at what has made the ribald production a favorite among critics, audiences, and artists alike. By Joel Rozen
With a resume boasting studious productions of Tannhäuser, Parsifal, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and the entire Ring cycle, Otto Schenk (pictured below) remains one of his generation’s leading exponents of Richard Wagner’s heroic and heavy oeuvre. Yet in his native Austria, Schenk is equally renowned as a comedian—both on the stage as well as behind it. He started his career in the early 1950s performing standup comedy at Viennese cabarets, and went on to portray numerous comic archetypes, including the dour governess Miss Prism in a German-language staging of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. In fact, Schenk was present on the stage when Met audiences first encountered his remarkable comic flair: In 1986, he cast himself in a new production of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, hamming it up as the drunken jailer Frosch.
In 2006, nearly 40 years after making his Met debut with a new production of Tosca in the Met’s third season at Lincoln Center, the eminent director was invited to put into practice the myriad comic talents he had spent a lifetime perfecting, by mounting a brilliant comedy the company had not performed in more than a quarter century. Schenk’s farewell production was Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, a brilliant bel canto farce, and to this day it is widely considered the definitive staging of this 19th-century masterpiece. Effortlessly merging subtle moments of physical comedy with over-the-top gags, cleverly insightful design with hilarious props and foils, the director invited us to laugh at the characters while also appreciating what makes them so profoundly relatable.
Don Pasquale tells of a lecherous elderly Roman bachelor who falls on hard times and tries to take a moneyed woman—whom he assumes to be a modest and demure virgin—as his wife. In fact, Norina, the beautiful young apple of his eye, is a shrewd young widow, and she views it as her mission to teach the Don a lesson he won’t ever forget.
Though the earthy 2006 production may have appeared traditional in some respects—with dilapidated surroundings for the tubby bass singing the title role, and handsome, period-appropriate garb by Schenk’s frequent Wagner collaborator Rolf Langenfass—critics at its premiere applauded the director’s innovative staging and his incisive collaborative work with his performers. “By tapping into the emotions that run just below the surface of this familiar story about a crusty and miserly old bachelor,” wrote The New York Times, “Mr. Schenk prods us to see this work in a provocatively new way.”
Star soprano Anna Netrebko (pictured above), who portrayed Norina in both the production’s premiere and in its 2010 revival, for instance, cannily transformed a character that had previously been played as a coquettish soubrette into a far more formidable, and even fully-formed, trickster. In this staging, Norina lives gleefully in a rooftop garret with a terrace—the kind of apartment over which any young Manhattanite would drool. Yet over time, her cunning insouciance gives way to subtle shades of pity: her remorseful expression, for example, when the Don (played to curmudgeonly perfection by John Del Carlo in the 2010 revival) tries in vain to stand up to her, and she suddenly fears that her ruse has gone too far.
Donizetti’s vocally demanding style is an ideal match for Schenk’s keen dramatic instincts and copious experience and expertise. As the Times wrote, “the only way to make a rich comedy truly funny is to take it seriously.”
Joel Rozen is the Met’s Staff Writer.