Met Opera: Camarena Returns in a Rousing "Don Pasquale"

The Met Opera brought Donizetti's Don Pasquale back to the stage Friday night in a fun-filled frolic that provided a showcase for the return of the dazzling tenor Javier Camarena, a stunning debut by the soprano Eleonora Buratto, and a show-stopping baritone duet by Ambrogio Maestri and Levente Molnar that earned a rare yet richly deserved encore.

It has been a good year for Donizetti on the Met stage. His so-called Tudor trilogy of Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux - with the superb soprano Sondra Radvanovsky singing all three leading roles - has been a smash (the final opera of the trio will have its first Met production later this month), and a revival of L'Elisir d'Amore will be the fifth Donizetti work at the house this season.

Don Pasquale was the composer's last big hit, an 1843 opera buffa whose popularity has been eclipsed somewhat in modern times by his other comic works such as La Fille du Regiment and L'Elisir d'Amore and dramas like Lucia di Lammermoor and the Tudor operas. But it has some lovely music and with a cast as splendid as the one the Met has recruited for this revival, it can produce a real enchantment.

The plot outline is fairly stock farce material: A fat, aging, vain, and penny-pinching bachelor (Don Pasquale) decides to marry if only to disinherit his profligate nephew Enrico, who refuses to wed a rich woman of his uncle's choosing and is in love with a girl named Norina. Don Pasquale confides his plan to his physician Dr. Malatesta and the good doctor has just the girl for Pasquale to marry, his sister Sofronia, straight out of the convent.

Only it is not his sister, of course, but the feisty Norina in disguise and the wedding is a sham, performed by a charlatan of a notary, and part of an elaborate plan to get Enrico back into the good graces of Don Pasquale and have him consent to the two lovers marrying.

On the surface, Don Pasquale might seem an odd choice for the Met return of Camarena, the Mexican-born tenor who stepped in at the last moment in a performance of La Cenerentola two seasons ago and scored a knockout. Enrico is almost a supporting role in what is basically a four-character opera, and there is little occasion for the vocal pyrotechnics one has come to expect from tenor superstars.

But it is the crystalline clarity and elegant phrasing that marked Camarena's performances two years ago - both in La Cenerentola and also in La Sonnambula - that set him apart as the leading candidate to succeed Pavarotti. Every note he sings rings like a silver bell, and there is at least one high C, in his second-act aria that begins "Povero Enrico" and segues into the reflective "Cerchero lontana terra," to send chills down the spine. It's not so much that he nails it, but that he makes it sound so effortless.

Buratto, an Italian soprano from Mantua, is a real discovery. She has a rich and appealing voice that soars easily into the upper register. She is bright and bouncy as the flirtatious Norina. Her opening aria, "Quel guardo il cavaliere," is brilliant and bubbly, and her final act duet with Camarena, "Tornami a dir che m'ami," is lovingly tender.

Maestri is magnificent in the title role, a puffed-up and pompous Don Pasquale who can take defeat gracefully. A major highlight of this revival is a sensational third-act duet by Maestri and Molnar. Few duets in opera make greater vocal demands on singers, and they rattle off the machine-gun lines like sharpshooters.

The tempo set for them by the Italian conductor Maurizio Benini is close to warp speed, and these two baritones toss it off with such ease it takes one's breath away. Benini, who led the Met Orchestra in an excellent reading of the score, especially in the overture, gave them an encore and if anything it seemed even faster the second time around.