Today, people who go to the opera don’t blink at the idea of a modern-dress production, but it was a strange concept in 1842, when Gaetano Donizetti decided that was how he wanted audiences to experience Don Pasquale, the new piece he was working on. By convention, operas were viewed as having a somewhat antique character. That was inalienably the case with works based on historical subjects or set in some specifically defined period in the past — a trait left over from the armor-clad, toga-draped days of Baroque and Classical opera seria — but it also extended in a general way to comic operas. There was good logic in this. A work of comedy ought to make its viewers laugh, of course, but it might also get under their skin, inviting them to laugh not just at the characters onstage but also at themselves. Some attendees might prove a bit thin-skinned in that regard, but at least dressing the dramatis personae not exactly like the people in the audience would provide requisite distance for the hypersensitive.
By the time he turned his sights on Don Pasquale, Donizetti’s theatrical instincts had been honed to a razor point. He had been watching audiences react to his operas since 1818, when he saw the first production of one of his operas just two weeks before his 21st birthday and his second a month later. He continued to churn out new works at a head-spinning pace, often unleashing two, three, or even four in the course of a single year. Not all of them were successes, to be sure, and through the passing years most of his titles have receded into the shadows of obscurity. Nonetheless, he scored bull’s-eyes with a handful that, along with Don Pasquale, earned places on opera’s honor roll: L’elisir d’amore in 1832, Lucia di Lammermoor in 1835, La favorite in 1840, La fille du régiment in 1840, and his “Tudor queens” trilogy, comprising Anna Bolena in 1830, Maria Stuarda in 1834-1835, and Roberto Devereux in 1837. He gained a reputation for working well with his colleagues, and singers appreciated the fluency with which he created scores that showed off their individual strengths. He was dependable, practical, and marketable. Opera producers clamored to snag his new works for their rosters. He became a star composer not only in his native Italy, where his works appeared on the leading stages of Naples, Rome, Venice, and Milan, but also in foreign music centers.