I have owned 4 recent versions of Don Pasquale and have reduced this to two having decided on two clear winners and two clear losers.
To my mind it is important to understand the respective roles of the 4 main characters in this story and how they should interact. This is not a straightforward comedy. It is a comment about relationships that might reflect some reality.
To take the title role of Don Pasquale first. This is a successful and wealthy man living in some luxury. He is in his 70s but still has his mental faculties intact. He is astonishingly generous as shown in two ways - his lengthy support of his nephew, but much more importantly, his apparent marriage settlement when he insists on handing over considerable operational and monetary control to his new `wife'. He must also be portrayed as having a sense of fairness and even humour as at the end he is able to give his blessing to Norina and his nephew without rancour. He must not be destroyed by humiliation therefore.
Norina is in fact a young widow who must appear to be just out of a convent. She must be attractive and compliant enough to attract both Pasquale and his nephew who is far too idle to take on a problem wife. She must show an awareness of the damage she does to Pasquale and show considerable remorse for this part so that their relationship can be believably retrieved by the end. Pasquale must not be so humiliated that he is destroyed.
The nephew is described by the chorus as an idle wastrel. He does not appear to work but lives a life of sponging. A domineering or shrewish woman would be far too much trouble for such a character.
The doctor Malatesta is a friend of Pasquale and this friendship must be salvaged by the end so it can continue without rancour therefore the planned deception has to avoid cruelty.
So how do the 4 versions compare with the above in mind?
The much favoured version of Netrebko at the Met fails on several counts. Netrebko is portrayed as a merciless shrew who also displays open dislike of Pasquale. She is the youngest but most flawed of the 4 Norinas for these reasons and is most unlikely to have attractions for Pasquale. In this production Pasquale is portrayed as somewhat dirty and unkempt - far from the type of character as described above. So two unbelievable roles featured here and my first rejection.
The coupling of Florez and Rey at Zurich is also flawed by Norina who lacks sympathy, is unyielding and verges on the shrewish too. Her voice is somewhat hard, like her characterisation, and she is simply too old to be a believable choice for either Pasquale or Florez. Pasquale is OK but rather too decrepit physically and shown to be too silly to be a believably successful man in business respects. This is my second rejection. Interestingly this version has been slated by the British reviewers (.co.uk) especially on grounds of recording quality and poor singing. There are 16 generally more favourable reviews by American reviewers (.com) for comparison. I have had no problem as regards recording quality using DTS on hi-fi quality equipment.
That brings us to the clear winners. Eva Mei (2002) is young and attractive enough to be believable. She has a light touch (see her in Falstaff) and she shows not only remorse at the crucial slap moment, but also considerable distress for Pasquale.
This leaves Pasquale able to retrieve his dignity later and therefore not to harbour deep grudges but simply to see the error of his wanting a much younger wife. His friendship with Malatesta can also be retrieved in this way. Pasquale in this production is a younger and stronger old man and there is no suggestion of his being destroyed or just being the butt of unpleasant behaviour.
The 2007 version with Ciofi is also excellent. Ciofi is older than Mei but wears her age remarkably well having a very good figure. She has a natural feel for light and shade in her physical and vocal acting and her role never becomes cruel. (She displays similar acting talents in an outstanding Daughter of the Regiment too). The age problem is solved by having a much younger Pasquale more matched to the older young widow of Ciofi as well as an older nephew who is also a better match therefore. This production has considerable presentational flair and Pasquale is even shown at the end to settle for a compensating and happy relationship with his cook!
Either of the last two performances would be my final choice and I would avoid the versions with Netrebko and Isabel Rey. All four are in good sound with clear and sharp video work. Blu-ray is not the best option this time.