Early in his career, Mozart wrote a comic opera with a title that sounds like a joke all on its own: The Goose of Cairo. It's an opera that's almost never heard. In fact, Mozart never even finished it. Yet it's part of a long, theatrical heritage that spawned some of opera's greatest hits.
The story of The Goose of Cairo involves a cranky and arrogant older man obsessed with the romantic future of a much younger woman, and willing to do just about anything to keep her away from the man she truly loves. Sound familiar? It should. There are plenty of other operas that share that same basic theme, including one of the greatest comic operas of all time: Rossini's The Barber of Seville. And there are dozens of others, dating all the way back to the earliest days of opera, with similar plots.
That's because all the operas in question exploit some basic character types that originated long ago, with the Italian tradition of commedia dell'arte. Mozart's own The Marriage of Figaro is one example, along with Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, and even a few tragic operas, such as Leoncavallo's Pagliacci.
Not surprisingly, none of the operas just mentioned uses these standard character types straight out of the box. Their composers were adept at crafting unique and complex characters while using just enough of the traditional models to make them familiar and appealing.
The composer who did it best of all may have been Gaetano Donizetti. His comic hit The Elixir of Love uses a few bits of commedia dell'arte. But the Donizetti opera that does it best -- complete with an old grump trying, and failing, to control a willful young woman -- is the comedy featured here: Don Pasquale.
Throughout his career, Donizetti churned out wonderful melodies, not to mention complete operas, at an amazing clip. By many counts, Don Pasquale was his 64th opera, and he finished it in just two weeks. Its premiere in Paris, early in 1843, was an instant success. Within a few months, it had also been heard in Milan, Vienna and London. By 1846, the opera made it all the way to New York City, where it was performed in English.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Don Pasquale, a true masterpiece from Donizetti's lighter side, in a production from the Vienna State Opera. Soprano Valentina Nafornita stars as the sly young woman Norina, with tenor Juan Diego Florez as Ernesto, and bass Michele Pertusi as the opera's overbearing, yet somehow loveable title character.
Vienna State Opera Video Feature: Learn more about Donizetti and Don Pasquale