DONIZETTI Don Pasquale
This is a most attractive set and presents a serious challenge to the two versions listed above. Like the excellent Ferro, Roberto Abbado balances equably the witty and more serious sides of the score. If he and his orchestra don't quite achieve the brio of Ferro—for instance the lighter, faster Ferro touch in the famous ''Cheti, cheti immatinente'' duet is better at suggesting sotto voce plotting—Abbado finds a gratifying lightness in the ''A quel vecchio'' section of the Act 1 finale and creates a delightful sense of expectancy as Pasquale preens himself while awaiting his intended bride. Ferro Abbado and the slightly po-faced Muti on the older EMI version play the score complete and respect Donizetti's intentions, banishing the traditional emendations added by his interpreters over the years.
The new cast has many strengths and few weaknesses: indeed it would be hard to cast the piece more successfully today. Pasquale is usually assigned to a veteran singer. In the case of Bruscantini (Muti) and Bacquier (Ferro), allowances definitely have to be made for the singer's age: both men cleverly compensate with the vocal equivalent of guying for failing voices. With Burton you hear a voice hardly touched by time and a technique still in perfect repair. Apart from weak low notes (not surprising as this is a bass rather than a baritone part), he sings and acts the part with real face, and his vital diction, particularly in recitative (listen to this Pasquale reciting his chapter of complaints about ''Sofronia'' to Malatesta in the final scene), is a pleasure to hear. This portrayal is a fit partner for his Falstaff on the Giulini set of Verdi's opera (DG, 12/83), and just as ripely and intelligently sung. He works well with Thomas Allen's nimble, wily Malatesta, an unexpected piece of casting that proves to be inspired. Like Bruson, Allen sings every note truly and relishes his words, evincing a sense of comedy as he prepares, cruel to be kind, to gull his friend. Allen sings ''Bella siccome'' as suavely as Nucci (Muti) and acts with his voice just as keenly.
Eva Mei's Norina is an ebullient creature with a smile in her tone, much more pointed and pert than the accurate but lacklustre Hendricks (Erato) or the admittedly warmer-voiced Freni (Muti). The edge to Mei's voice seems to me just right for Norina though others may find it tends towards the acerbic under pressure. Her skills in coloratura are as exemplary as you would expect from a reigning Queen of Night. She is at her very best in ''Tornami a dir'', her pure line and refined phrasing ideally matching those of Lopardo as Ernesto. Lopardo is that rare thing, a tenor who can sing in an exquisite half-voice, as in ''Com' e gentil'', yet has the metal in his tone to suggest something heroic in ''E se fia'', the cabaletta to ''Cerchero lantern terra'', which in turn is sung in a plangent loving way, just right: I loved the pp cadenza into the second verse. Not even Schipa had all these accomplishments. Perhaps Canonici's timbre (Ferro) is the more Italianate, but Lopardo is the more accomplished singer, indeed on the way to becoming a great one.
As the recording here is exemplary as compared with the EMI (too reverberant) and the Erato (singers sometimes too backward), this version would now be my outright recommendation. '