Act 1.i A room in Pasquale’s house
The action is preceded by a brilliant overture which gives prominence to two melodies heard later, Ernesto’s serenade and Norina’s self-characterizing aria, ‘So anch’io la virtù magica’. The elderly Don Pasquale is determined to marry and sire an heir more direct than his nephew Ernesto, whom he plans to disinherit because of that young man’s unreasonable infatuation with a youthful widow, Norina. To reassure himself about his generative powers, Pasquale consults Malatesta, who gives a favourable prognosis, but as he is a devoted friend to both Ernesto and Norina he starts to tell Pasquale about a young woman, a certain Sofronia, his own sister, who would be perfect for such a marriage – and she is beautiful besides (Larghetto cantabile, ‘Bella siccome un angelo’. The old bachelor is delighted with what he takes to be the symptoms of a regained youth (Un fuoco insolito). Ernesto enters and is surprised at his uncle’s exuberance and disconcerted when he hears that he plans to take a wife. Their duet, ‘Prender moglie!’, contrasts an elegiac melody for Ernesto, ‘Sogno soave casto’, with Pasquale’s patter, half-rancorous, half-gleeful.
1.ii A room in Norina’s house
Norina, reading, laughs over a silly romantic tale; she knows her own ability to exert charm. The contrast in style between the slightly exaggerated, bel canto tale of chivalry ‘Quel guardo il cavaliere’ and the good-humoured dance tune ‘So anch’io la virtù magica’, is not only a capital piece of musical characterization but also an implied musical criticism, vintage 1843, as this work was first played in contemporary dress rather than period costume. Malatesta visits her and together they plot in just what manner she should enact the supposed bride, a part she is ready and eager to play if it will help her ultimately to win Ernesto ‘Pronta io son’.
Act 2 A living-room in Pasquale’s house
Ernesto is feeling sorry for himself, imagining his future as an exile and lamenting his lost love. His Larghetto, ‘Cercherò lontana terra’, is preceded by an eloquent introduction with a trumpet solo, and is a locus classicus of Donizetti’s ability to write melodies grateful to the lyric tenor voice. Ernesto leaves just before Pasquale, afire with impatience to meet his bride, enters. Malatesta leads in a veiled lady, really Norina, who feigns terror but is actually so amused at Pasquale’s antique gallantry that she can hardly keep herself from collapsing in laughter. Malatesta pretends to encourage her ‘Via, da brava’. Later, he introduces a supposed notary, in reality his cousin Carlotto, who takes down the marriage agreement Pasquale dictates, assuring Sofronia that she will be the absolute mistress of all his possessions. Just as the document is signed and the notary asks where the second witness might be, Ernesto storms in to take leave of Pasquale. He is enraged at the spectacle of Norina apparently in the act of marrying his testy uncle; Malatesta whispers an explanation and the young man remains to watch the fun ‘Ah, figliuol, non mi far scene’. As soon as the notary declares them man and wife, Sofronia turns into a shrew, reproving Pasquale’s manners, demanding a cavalier servente and carrying on so outrageously that the old man seems turned to stone ‘È rimasto là impietrato’. The economy and unflagging comic afflatus of this second act, everywhere given tongue by melodic wit and allusiveness, stands as one of Donizetti’s greatest achievements.
Act 3.i A living-room in Pasquale’s house
Sofronia has continued her high-handed ways, ordering jewels and clothes, hiring more servants. When she appears dressed to go out, Pasquale stops her ‘Signorina, in tanta fretta’. She orders him to bed and, when he protests more urgently, slaps his cheek ‘È finita Don Pasquale’. He threatens her with divorce, and in an aside she expresses sympathy for the old fellow’s pain; then as she blithely leaves she drops a note implying that she has a