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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
La Favorite. Opera in four acts (1840)
Performed in the original French in the Critical Edition by Rebecca Harris-Warrick and with the collaboration and contribution of the municipality of Bergamo and the Fondazione Donizetti.
Fernand, a novice monk in love with Léonor – Celso Albelo (ten); Alphonse XI, King of Castille – Mattia Olivieri (bar); Léonor de Guzmán, mistress of the King – Veronica Simeoni (mezzo); Balthazar, abbot of the monastery – Ugo Guagliardo (bass). Inès, Francesca Longari (soprano); Gaspar, Manuel Amati (bar)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino /Fabio Luisi
Stage Director, Ariel García Valdés, Co-Director, Eric Gimpel. Set and costume designer, Jean Pierre Vergier
Video Director, Mateo Ricchelli
PCM Stereo 2.0/DTS-HD Mster Audio 5.1. 1080/60i – 1BD 50
Rec. at Opera Firenze. Florence Feb. 2018
Introductory note and act synopsis in English, and Italian
Subtitles in English, German, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, French and (original language),
DYNAMIC Blu-ray 57822 [155 mins]

This filmed staging owed its origins to a co-production attributed to the Gran Teatro del Liceu Barcelona and the Teatro Real Madrid. Initially, I thought this to be a new production and wondered why it was not seen and filmed at either of the two sponsoring theatres. Further research showed that the production was not new and had previously been seen in 2002 at the Licieu in Barcelona. A concert performance of the work in November 2017, again the Italian version, marked the twentieth anniversary of the Real Theatre Madrid’s reopening as well as reminding us that the opera had had been the first seen at that theatre’s opening on October 18th 1850.

The production featured in this film was premiered at the Licieu in 2002, but not well received. Surprisingly a further twelve performances, given in the original French as La favorite for the first time at either theatre, were seen at the Licieu theatre in July 2018 with an international cast and conducted by Patrick Summers. Derek Gimpel is shown as revising the original, 2002, production. Gimpel is shown as co-director here; the original costumes are used (see pictures and comment). This filmed performance was the premiere of the opera in Florence.

This recorded performance was financially assisted by the Donizetti Foundation who could not, or chose otherwise, to accommodate it at their annual Donizetti Festival in Bergamo. It is played without the inclusion of the ballet music, which, as noted in the appendix below, was de rigeur at the Paris Opera the scene of the work’s premiere on December second 1840.

The story is set in 14th century Spain. Fernand, a young novice monk, refuses to take his vows, as he is in love with a young woman who comes to the church to pray and who returns his love. He considers himself her social inferior and volunteers to fight in the army and then returns an acclaimed hero. The King offers him any reward and he asks for the hand of his love. She is in fact Léonor de Guzman, the King’s mistress, who confesses her shame, as a fallen woman in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Bereft, Fernand returns to the monastery where the woman joins him to seek his forgiveness and dies.

This production suffers from an excess of gloom, lacking light. There is a basic set of a large tower that revolves and around the two sides of which the action takes place. The costumes, except those concerned with the religious scenes in the monastery where Fernand is about to take his vows, are resplendent in colour, particularly that of the king and his court retinue (CHs. 12-24). There are no singers of international renown: none-the-less the standard is satisfactory. As Fernand, Celso Albelo, physically sturdy, sings with a tenor voice that extends upwards with no little beauty, albeit his physical acting could be significantly more involved. As Balthazar, the abbot, Ugo Guagliardo has the physical advantage of presence due to his height and he acts and sings the role well, albeit I would have liked a little more lower voice sonority to give weight to his interpretation. As the sinning woman Léonor, Veronica Simeoni is outstanding in her singing and acting. Her rendition of the recit and aria ‘O mon Fernand’ of act three (CHs. 25-27) is a vocal highlight. The soprano Francesca Longari acts and sings well and looks appealing as Ines. By far the strongest male singing comes from King Alphonse, sung by the baritone Mattia Olivieri. He carries his physical height well and together with his regal costume he dominates act 2 (CHs.12-20) and the act three scenes where he features. His baritone is strong and tonally appealing and he acts well. The king manipulates the circumstances and it becomes apparent that his mistress’ affections have turned elsewhere. It is in these scenes that Donizetti’s music is at its best, elsewhere there are bland patches that may have suited the dilettante Paris Grand Opera audiences, but which sound less dynamic here. This perhaps accounts for the work’s lack of popularity compared with the likes of La Fille du Regiment that immediately preceded it.

Musically, Fabio Luisi on the rostrum brings cohesion to the score, limiting the impact of the more apparent dramatic weaknesses and cohesion in the score. The large chorus play a full part in appropriate proceeding as only properly disciplined Italian or Spanish choruses can, even when singing in French, and it is always a pleasure to hear them as well as to see the cast and chorus in costumes of the period the composer intended.

Compared to the recent performance from Munich featuring Elīna Garanča as Léonor and Matthew Polenzani as Fernand, this is altogether a more traditional production. It is for me, far preferable despite its limitations than that predecessor (review), being set in period and not looking as if it originated in a local schoolroom!

Robert J Farr

Appendix: La favorite, its background and place in Madrid’s operatic history.

Donizetti went to Paris at Rossini’s invitation in 1835 to present his opera Marino Faliero at the Théâtre Italien, where his great predecessor was intendant. This visit also introduced him to the Grand Opera style of Meyerbeer and Halevy at The Opéra, the Academie Imperiale de Musique. He also discovered, as Rossini and other Italian predecessors had done before him, and Verdi would do afterwards, the significantly higher musical and theatrical standards that existed in Paris compared with their own country, even in Naples (with its professional orchestra) and Milan. Also appealing to a composer, who often had to write and present three or four new works each year to maintain a decent living, was the superior financial remuneration for their work available in Paris as well as the safeguarding of performance rights.

Marino Faliero was premiered on March 12th 1835 and followed Bellini’s I Puritani, the latter rather overshadowing Donizetti’s creation. Both operas featured four of the greatest singers of the day in Giulia Grisi, Giovanna Battista Rubini, Antonio Tamburini and Luigi Lablache. With Marino Faliero neither a failure nor a raging success in Paris, Donizetti returned to Italy and presented Lucia di Lamermoor in Naples on September 26th. This was a huge and immediate success. To this day it remains the composer’s most popular opera and is widely considered a foundation stone of Italian Romanticism. With the premature death of Bellini in the same month as Lucia’s premiere, and Rossini’s retirement from operatic composition, Donizetti was elevated to a preeminent position among his contemporaries. Given this status, his return to Paris was inevitable and in 1838 he presented a French version of Lucia at the Théâtre de Rennaisance. He followed this with three operas in Paris in 1840. La Fille du Regiment at the Opera Comique (11th February), Les Martyrs (10th April) and La Favorite (2nd December) both the latter at The Opéra, where at least four acts, including a ballet, were de rigeur. In his contemporaneous writings, Berlioz was caustic about what he considered the domination of the Paris theatres by the Italian.
La Favorite started off as L’ange de Nisida and was scheduled for performance at the Théâtre de Rennaisance. However, when that theatre went bankrupt, Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz’s libretto was expanded by Scribe, with Donizetti concluding act two with a ballet, this being, as noted, de rigeur at The Opéra. To the new act four he added the lovely tenor aria for Fernand, Ange si pur (CH.37), known to all tenors of the Italian school as Spirito Gentil. When the opera was first performed in Italy, in translation, it was titled Leonora di Guzman relating to the title of the origin of the earlier libretto. It became known by its Italian title of La Favorita when given at La Scala in 1843. In this form it was the choice of Barcelona’s Gran Teatre de Liceu for its opening production. Over the next seventy years over 700 performances of the work were given at the Paris Opéra. More recently the operatic world has demanded to see and hear the work, as given here, in the original French as La Favorite, rather than in Italian. The work achieved considerable notice with the issue in 1974 of Decca’s recording of the work in Italian as La Favorita and featuring Pavarotti as Fernando and Fiorenza Cossotto as Leonora. The latter singer appeared several times in productions of the work at the Liceu in Barcelona.



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