The overture lasts 6 minutes and is made up of some of the tunes you’ll hear later on. The opera starts as soon as you hear the first note of the overture, so sit back and enjoy it.
The opera is set in Don Pasquale’s house and the curtain rises on the Don himself, waiting for his friend, Dr Malatesta, to turn up.
Don Pasquale’s plan
Don Pasquale is furious with his nephew Ernesto who’s refused to marry the rich girl he’s found for him. Pasquale decides to get married himself. That way his wife will get all his money when he dies, and Ernesto will be disinherited.
Dr Malatesta arrives and says he’s found a wonderful woman for Pasquale – pretty, modest and (as it happens) his own sister. Pasquale falls in love with her just from the description and begins to imagine he’s young again. (You need to watch the Doctor in this scene, he’s not being completely truthful and he tells the audience privately that he thinks old Pasquale is a fool.)
In comes Ernesto. He won’t hear about any rich bride and says he’s determined to marry Norina, even if she is poor.
Pasquale has never even seen Norina, but he won’t have it and loses his temper. He says, “OK well in that case I’m going to get married. Malatesta has found me a bride.” Ernesto can’t understand it – he thought Malatesta was his friend.
The two of them sing a duet together, but their tunes sound very different. Ernesto’s life is falling into pieces, while Pasquale thinks that everything is great and is extremely pleased with himself.
The scene changes to a room in Norina’s house. She is reading a soppy love story in which the girl wins the man by giving him a love potion.
Norina tosses the book aside, love potions are stupid, she says, she can charm men all by herself.
A letter arrives from Ernesto, saying he’s leaving the country for good, but before Norina can get too upset, in comes Dr Malatesta.
He tells her that he’s set up Don Pasquale to marry his sister. Now, if Norina doesn’t mind pretending to be that sister, he can get a cousin of his to perform a fake wedding ceremony and, when Norina is Mrs Pasquale, she can make life so difficult for the Don that he’ll be desperate to get rid of her and welcome Ernesto back home.
“Ernesto is not going to like this” says Norina. “I’ll sort him out” says Malatesta – and Norina agrees. In fact she likes the idea of acting the part of Pasquale’s bride so much that she starts rehearsing at once.
That’s the end of Act 1.
Starts with a quiet trumpet solo. Ernesto has decided to leave Italy and travel abroad.
He’s sitting alone, feeling very sorry for himself, and walks sadly off stage as his uncle appears.
Don Pasquale is all ready to meet his bride, who is brought on (heavily veiled) by Dr Malatesta.
It is of course Norina, but she’s introduced as ‘Sofronia’ and is so sweet and modest that Pasquale can’t believe his luck
(fortunately he can’t hear her laughing at him whenever she gets the chance).
Malatesta’s cousin arrives with a fake wedding contract and the bride and groom are just signing the papers when Ernesto enters to say good bye.
He is horrified to find Norina marrying his uncle...
(you can’t help thinking Malatesta should have told him by now) but Malatesta quickly puts him right, and Ernesto stays on to watch.
Sofronia takes over
The moment she’s married, Sofronia switches from a shy girl into a monster. She taunts Pasquale, takes over his house and produces a list of the things she wants: servants, furniture, frocks, and a nice young man to attend her. In fact she carries on so appallingly that Don Pasquale stands rooted to the spot, rigid with horror.
All comic opera have a moment when people stand stock still with surprise. It usually happens just before the interval so, when everyone freezes on stage, you’ll know it’s very near the break.
However before you get there, you’ll have time to enjoy the sight of Sofronia doubling the servants’ wages and shouting down Pasquale as he erupts into a fast and furious aria. That starts off the rest, and the act ends with everyone telling everyone else what they think of them, at high speed, and at the top of their voice.
Pasquale watches appalled as his house fills up with new frocks, hats, furniture; all the stuff Sofronia has ordered. She enters ready to go out and, when he tries to stop her, she tells him to go to bed – and slaps him.
The slap stops the show, and you can’t help feeling sorry for the old man as he tries to cope with what’s happened to him. Even Sofronia pities him, ‘but it’s a lesson he must learn’ she says to herself.
As she leaves she drops a letter. Pasquale reads it and discovers that she has planned to meet a lover in his garden that very night. Malatesta makes one of his useful appearances and he and Pasquale plot to ambush Sofronia, and her boyfriend, and force a showdown.
They do this in one of the fastest and funniest duets in Italian opera. Sometimes, if the audience clap hard enough, the singers do it again, at double speed.
It’s a beautiful night, and Ernesto sings as he waits for Norina. She joins him - perfectly aware that Pasquale and Malatesta are watching her and Ernesto from behind a bush.
Ernesto makes sure they don’t see his face, and the lovers sing together.
Pasquale is both angry and relieved. Obviously he doesn’t like seeing his new wife singing duets in the garden with a boy friend, but he realises that this is the perfect moment to get rid of her. He erupts from his bush, Ernesto slips away and Pasquale tells Sofronia to leave. She refuses.
Dr Malatesta quickly takes over: he tells Sofronia that if she doesn’t leave Pasquale’s house she’ll have to put up with another young woman in the home. Pasquale’s nephew is going to marry Norina and will be bringing her back to live with them. “Right!” says Sofronia, “I shall go. I can’t live in the same house as Norina!” “Really!?” says Pasquale, and the next minute he’s arranged for Ernesto to marry Norina right away.
So out comes Ernesto, ‘Sofronia’ turns back into Norina and the whole plot is explained to Don Pasquale. He takes it very well and the show ends with everyone agreeing that a man who marries in old age is asking for trouble.
Text and illustration by Sarah Lenton