Gaetano Donizetti's most famous opera may be "L'Elisir d'Amore," but his best one is undoubtedly "Don Pasquale," an opera with a compact libretto, rich characters and a fascinating score.

The opera, in a production by Otto Schenk, made a triumphant return on Friday with a tremendous cast buoying a solid production.

"Don Pasquale" tells the tale of the old, rich title character, who decides to take a wife as a lesson to his lazy nephew. The nephew, Ernesto, had refused to marry the woman Pasquale wants him to. But, little does Pasquale know, his chosen bride, Norina, is none other than his nephew's true love, and the woman has a plan to make his life miserable.

Schenk's take on the Donizetti comedy, his final effort at the Metropolitan Opera, is an intelligent production. As expected from Schenk's other work, the production is a period piece in the traditional style, but it is filled with many expressionist gestures that highlight the opera's diverse themes.

Don Pasquale's mansion is transformed throughout the opera. Before the intermission, viewers witness the colorful interior in all its decadence. A bed is oddly placed near a staircase in the middle of the stage. There is a desk also awkwardly placed on the fringes of the room. This emphasizes Pasquale's rather cheap and lazy nature, which has influenced the spoiled Ernesto.

When the set returns in the second half of the performance, it is far cleaner on the surface, and the arrangement of the furniture is far more logical. There is a new set of doors as well, giving the locale a greater sense of freedom. By the same token, there are boxes scattered throughout the center of the stage, giving the impression the home is more of a war zone than a peaceful dwelling.

Contrasting these sets are two exteriors, which incidentally showcase scenes in which Norina is shown in her true colors. The first scene set in her home shows her as a free spirit, while the second outdoor scene reveals her love for Ernesto. Alternatively, in indoor scenes, Norina puts on an act to dupe Don Pasquale.

Ambrogio Maestri made his name at the Met a few seasons ago in the title role of Verdi's "Falstaff." Maestri is back to his comic best in his turn as Donizetti's title man. He has a large voice with great heft, and he uses it rather prominently, particularly in confrontation scenes where he desperately seeks to reinstate Pasquale's control of the situation. He shows tremendous technical assurance throughout, particularly in the duet with Norina and the ensuing one with Pasquale's physician, Malatesta, with its famous "pattering."

There is a crispness to his diction -- a fantastic feature of the entire cast -- that allow Pasquale's rhythmic lines to contrast beautifully with the more lyrical singing around him. It is easy to overlook these vocal lines in the raptures of belcanto lyricism of his partners onstage, but Maestri makes his presence felt. He also uses his height to his advantage, looking down on Ernesto at every chance as a means of emphasizing his power.

Debutante Elenora Buratto is the true heroine of the piece in the role of Norina. The Italian soprano has grown into the role, delivering a nuanced performance filled with magnificent coloratura throughout. Her Norina is a flirt from the beginning, showing off her legs to the audience and dancing about in her opening cabaletta "So anch'io la virtu magica." Her singing in the preceding aria is delicately executed, her softer singing giving off a sensual quality.

Her portrayal of the meek servant is a stroke of comic genius, her physical movement restrained and minimized and her voice taking on a dryer quality. Buratto then proceeds to steal the show in the ensuing acts when she starts parading around the set, tearing it apart in a rather vicious display. Her singing takes on a cutting edge, her voice gaining a brighter complexion and the consonants getting more prominent emphasis in the phrasing. The luxurious singing makes a glorious return during the final act duet "Tornami" where her voice melds beautifully with the equally rich sound of tenor Javier Camarena.

Speaking of the Mexican tenor, he likely has the most potent vocal moment of the evening during the famed "Cercehero lontana terra." Camarena's sweet tenor has some weight to it, and he employs this quality to more docile phrasing, adding to the character's sense of pain. The phrasing is polished, showcasing some of the most elegant singing the Met opera season has offered thus far. Like few others, his ascent to the tenorial stratosphere is flawless, particularly in the thrilling caballeta "E se fi ache ad altro oggetto." The climactic note at the end of this aria is breath-taking, Camarena holding the high C through the orchestral coda.

His acting is also on fine display. The tenor crafts an almost childish Ernesto. He pouts as he confronts his uncle, jumping up and down in the man's face as if trying to make a point. It not only delivers laughs every single time, but allows for a nuanced contrast with the tenor's maturity in the aria.

As Dr. Malatesta, Romanian baritone Levente Molnar provides a far grainier color in his singing. But he manages to spin arresting legato during his opening aria, his conniving nature expressed by the softer passages. The "patter" duet is a showcase for him, his articulation seamless throughout. Molnar also dares to play up the showmanship in scenes where he shows off Norina to Pasquale as a prospective wife. At one point, he puts on the stance of a musician showcasing the climax of a magic trick, a rather ironic pose to strike in the context of the story.

In the pit is Belcanto specialist Maurizio Benini. The conductor delivers a wonderful account of the score, articulating textures that often get glossed over. Despite being belcanto, the score is rich with nuance and depth. This is clear in the trio between Malatesta, Norina and Pasquale, in which the title character lusts after the young "nun" while she prepares to stick the dagger. At a few crucial moments, Donizetti places rather ominous timpani rolls that most conductors hush. Benini lets them rise and fall like thunderous waves, hinting at the danger ahead for Pasquale.

In the overture, Benini plays with the tempi extensively, particularly in the closing phrases of the theme for Norina's cabaletta. Playing with the latent humor of the score, Benini constantly slackens the pace on the closing phrases, playing with the audience's expectations of forward movement into the next musical transition. Tempi throughout are forward-moving but accommodate each singer's needs. There is never a false step here, and it allows for riveting music-making throughout.

There is undoubtedly more great tragedy in the opera world than comedy, but Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" is one of the best of the latter genre. This Met production and musical team is fascinating in every respect, allowing for an enjoyable evening that races by.