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La Favorite
Vesselina Kasarova (Léonor), Abbie Furmansky (Inès), Ramòn Vargas (Fernand), Anthony Michaels-Moore (Alphonse XI), Carlo Colombara (Balthazar), Bavarian Radio Choir and Orchestra/Marcello Viotti
BMG Classics 74321 66229 2 [2 CDs, 147' 59"]

La Favorite, or more often its Italian version La Favorita, was one of Donizetti's more popular operas during the 19th Century but rather fell out of view in the 20th. Perhaps this recording will lead to more performances in the new century, for it contains plenty of fine music, a plot of some interest and main characters with whom it is possible to identify. Of course, Donizetti will be Donizetti, which means that he sometimes falls back on just a good tune when the situation demands something more complex. This is signally so in Alphonse's aria Pour tant d'amour where the bitterness and sadness which the librettist prescribes are not to be found in the agreeably flowing melody (and I think Anthony Michaels-Moore is right not to try to inject them into it). Yet this is a key moment, for the plot hinges on Alphonse's misunderstanding of Léonor's motives and his sarcastic denunciation of her. Only a little later, on the other hand, comes Léonor's magnificent scena L'ai-je bien entendu? (to which Kasarova rises superbly), and the finales to both Acts 2 and 3 have splendid sweep. That to Act 2 also has some extremely impressive, almost Berliozian, writing for the brass. I shall programme out the ballet music next time I listen, but on the whole I side with the 19th Century rather than the 20th in my estimation of the work.

The first recording (made in 1912!) used the French version; the Italian one has been used more often since. There is a Pavarotti recording, and an earlier Decca with Giulietta Simionato which might bear revival. But the Italian revision was much mauled about to meet the needs of the Italian censors of the day and the present recording, based as it is on the new critical edition by Rebecca Harris-Warwick (published by Ricordi) of the original French version, starts in pole position for this fact alone. Any French readers who have surfed in are warned that the French pronunciation tends to be of the international variety, but this is not really noticeable enough to worry the rest of us.

The cast is mostly very effective. Slight reservations centre around Ramòn Vargas's Fernand. In the lower and middle range he has an attractive, sappy sound, but a beat starts to appear around F sharp which then becomes uncomfortable by the time he reaches A. And he needs a dose of falsetto when the note is to be taken quietly. Beyond this, his Bs and Cs (not many of them, fortunately) sound distinctly forced. Still, given the current world tenor situation, we can be thankful that he is a musical singer and seems genuinely involved by Fernand's plight.

The American soprano Abbie Furmansky has a slightly shrill, soubrettish upper register with a tight vibrato which makes her scene with the Spanish girls rather less suavely mellifluous than it could have been. (She might have been recorded less closely, too; generally the balance is excellent throughout the opera). In the later ensembles she is expected to be more strenuous and is completely convincing.

Anthony Michaels-Moore is an excellent Alphonse. Yet Donizetti, even when writing in French, is a thoroughly Italian composer, and Carlo Colombara, as Balthazar, has that pingingly focused sound which we recognise as the real thing. Here is a splendid singer who is surely set to inherit Piero Cappuccilli's mantle as a specialist in operatic priests.

Vesselina Kasarova has received little but praise since she appeared on the recording scene. This is a voice with real personality in the middle range and thrillingly secure upper notes, right up to the high C. But is she really a mezzo? Her lower octave is not especially strong, and below middle C she uses a chest voice, which any soprano can do. Still, no doubt she'll sort this out in time. What is more to the point is that she throws herself wholeheartedly into the role. This is a real star performance.

Chorus and orchestra are splendid and the conductor's tempi are so natural that one stops noticing them and concentrates on the music instead. When an opera is conducted like this the whole is usually greater than the sum of its parts, and so it is here.

With the one reservation noted above the recording is excellent. The performance is said to be live but the public must have been doped at the door for there's not a cough nor a whisper from start to finish. Did no one really burst into applause at the end of Kasarova's great scene?

The booklet notes are by the leading Donizetti scholar Philip Gossett, there is a synopsis and libretto, all in English, French and German. In short, this seems to me an example of the modern record industry at its best. A genuine gap has been filled with a performance which will not be quickly bettered.

Christopher Howell.

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