What is Don Pasquale?

Don Pasquale is a three-act drama buffo opera the Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti, who is also known for his comic opera L’elisir d’amore, as well as his historical operas Lucia di Lammermoor, Anna Bolena, and Maria Stuarda, all of which are based on true stories. Don Pasquale was written in 1842 with a libretto Giovanni Ruffini and Donizetti, based on Angelo Anelli’s libretto for composer Stefano Pavesi’s opera Ser Marcantonio, which was written in 1810.

On 3 January 1843, the Théâtre Italien in Paris hosted the world premiere of Don Pasquale. The opera takes place in Don Pasquale’s villa and garden in Rome, as well as the home of his nephew Ernesto’s beloved, a poor young widow named Norina.

Act I introduces us to Don Pasquale, an older man whose only heir is a nephew and who wishes to marry and have a son to whom he can pass on his inheritance. He disapproves of his nephew Ernesto and wishes to disinherit him because of Ernesto’s unreasonable attachment to the widow Norina.

Don Pasquale consults his physician, Malatesta, to ensure that his health is in good enough shape for this new venture, and Malatesta, who despises concocting schemes, suggests that Don Pasquale’s sister, Sofronia, would be a good match for him. When Ernesto walks in, he is taken aback his uncle’s plan and Malatesta’s role in it, as he had previously thought of Malatesta as a friend. He also discovers that if he marries, he will have to leave the house. The scene shifts to Norina’s home, where she is reading a romance novel. Malatesta comes in and tells her about his plan, in which she will play Sofronia and eventually marry Ernesto.

Act II begins with Ernesto wandering outside Don Pasquale’s house, imagining his future exile and the loss of Norina. Malatesta brings Sofronia, dressed in a veil, to meet Don Pasquale after he departs. Norina feigns fear as Don Pasquale interrogates her about her personality, discovering that she has simple tastes and lives frugally. A fictitious notary, who turns out to be Malatesta’s cousin, enters and drafts a marriage contract guaranteeing Sofronia control of all Don Pasquale’s assets.

Ernesto arrives to say his goodbyes as the document is being signed and the notary requests a second witness. He recognizes Norina and is taken aback because he isn’t in on the joke and believes she is marrying his uncle. Malatesta apprehends him and explains everything. Sofronia abruptly changes character after the agreement is finalized, becoming shrewish, insulting, demanding, and greedy. Don Pasquale is awestruck.

Sofronia continues to spend lavishly and treat Don Pasquale rudely in Act III. He threatens divorce, and even though Norina sympathizes with him, she keeps the plot going leaving a note in the garden at night that suggests she has an assignment.

Don Pasquale summons Malatesta to assist him in dealing with the situation, and the two plot to apprehend the lovers. Ernesto, disguised, serenades Sofronia in the garden. Don Pasquale and Malatesta emerge from behind a bush, and Don Pasquale evicts Sofronia from his residence. She is adamant about not leaving. Malatesta adds to the threat informing Sofronia that Ernesto’s bride Norina will take over as mistress of the house the following day. Sofronia claims she would rather leave than live in such circumstances. Don Pasquale is persuaded Malatesta that the only way to get rid of Sofronia is for Norina and Ernesto to marry that night. Don Pasquale, who appears to have no choice, agrees. Everything is revealed, Don Pasquale accepts his fate, and the story comes to a happy conclusion.