A Close Look at Norina’s Aria “So anch’io la virtu magica” from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale

Norina is a young widow. Today, we may miss what this implied to a nineteenth century audience. A widow had been initiated into physical love, and it was assumed that this knowledge gave her a special power over men—unlike a virgin, she knew what men liked! The humor of Norina’s posing as a sheltered convent girl until her pretended marriage with Don Pasquale is enhanced by our knowledge that she is the exact opposite: an experienced woman of the world. In her aria, she frankly states that, although “goodhearted,” she has no qualms about manipulating men. Of course, other soubrette characters may behave similarly, but Norina is exceptional in her self-knowledge and bluntness.

In the first section of her aria, Norina reads an elevated story of courtly love, and, accompanied by an abrupt change of key, begins laughing at the end. If, until the moment of the laugh, Norina appears to be touched by the banal story, the revelation that she finds it absurd will come as a delightful surprise. (I find that this surprise is spoiled when the singer takes the staccato orchestral response after “cavalier” as a cue for a giggle.) The cavatina section is especially effective if all the expressive details are slightly exaggerated: if the knight’s quoted exclamation is extremely ardent, if the melisma on the word “paradiso” is rendered very freely, if the written-out portamento at the end of this melisma is very prolonged. As she is singing, we think that she is reveling in the “poetry” of the story—after she finishes, we realize that she has been subtly parodying it. In translating the piece, the singer may be confused by the word spelled in Ricordi edition as “piego.” It is not first-person present, but third-person singular past absolute (like “giurò” later)—Riccardo bent his knee. It is Ricordi’s fault that the accent mark on the second syllable is missing, and Donizetti’s fault that the music does not allow us to accent it correctly!

Norina’s assumption that the story’s heroine is not an innocent maiden, but a coquette like herself, becomes the point of departure for the cabaletta. The word “io” in the repeated phrase “so anch’io…” is particularly important—“I, too, know how to attract men,” Norina boasts. Therefore, it is essential that the “io” be pronounced emphatically and correctly—the first vowel is the stressed one and ought to extend through most of the D-natural, not simply occupy the grace note. Vigilance is needed to make the C-sharp (and all of the similar half-step neighboring tones) high enough; because they are so short, it is easy to approximate them. The cabaletta will be more playful if the dotted rhythm is crisp and bouncy—in other words, if the sixteenth notes are sung with energy. (With rhythm, sometimes right-brain “feeling” succeeds better than left-brain numerical thinking.)

With this cabaletta, Norina speaks directly to the audience. What she tells us might alienate us: she is utterly calculating and enjoys teasing men. But her confiding tone presupposes that we will indulge her, that we share her cynical values. By hearing her out, we become her accomplices. Norina does not play the scene to us, but with us—we are all her naughty little friends, just waiting for her to sow confusion, tease and torment others.

Not so very long ago, the attractive coda was always cut, and an unaccompanied cadenza interpolated in its place. This was justified with circular logic: you must cut it, because it is always cut, and it is always cut because you must cut it! Following the melisma on “ah!” Donizetti marks a forte. I recommend inserting a piano four bars later, to allow a crescendo to the final bars. (The da capo is usually shortened: after the long trill, cut from the first “d’un breve…” to the next occurrence of these words.)

The musical text appearing in the Prima Donna Album aria book is corrupt in too many ways to even enumerate. The aria should be studied from the score.

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith is a highly respected New York coach, particularly known for helping singers with difficult and unfamiliar scores.