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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797–1848) 
La Favorite
Léonor de Guzman - Veronica Simeoni
Fernand - Celso Albelo
Alphonse XI - Mattia Olivieri
Balthazar - Ugo Guagliardo
Don Gaspar - Manuel Amati
Inès - Francesca Longari
Un Seigneur - Leonardo Sgroi
Chorus Master - Lorenzo Fratini
Orchestra and Chorus of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Fabio Luisi
rec. Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, 2018
Libretto with English translation included
DYNAMIC CDS7822.02 [72:36 + 76.16]

La Favorite has had a considerable fall from grace over the last hundred years. La Favorita, (it was almost always sung in Italian until very recently) was probably Donizetti’s most popular opera after Lucia and L’Elisir until after the first world war, but its popularity waned after that until it has now become something of a rarity. The recently-reconstructed L’Ange di Nisida, which had its world premiere at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden last July, was Donizetti’s first opera written specifically for Paris when the composer moved there in 1839. However, the theatre for which it was composed went bankrupt before it could be performed, and much of the music ended up in La Favorite.

The performance under review here is in the original French and uses the new critical edition of the score by Rebecca Harris-Warrick. It is one of that increasing number of issues which are coming out as both audio-only CDs (of which this is a review) and DVDs. From the sound of reviews of the source performances at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, little is lost by not seeing the apparently stodgy staging with its minimal sets and static personenregie. In Italian-language performances from the past, the opera was often approached using the style of later romantic opera (in effect, treating it as if it were by Verdi), but the approach here is much more in a style which reflects its actual date and place of composition, though the lack of a single francophone cast member is a shame.

The “favourite” of the title, Léonor, is sung by Veronica Simeoni, a Roman who studied with Kabaivanska. She sings the part well, if without quite the ultimate distinction. Her line is smooth and she inflects it well, though her vibrato loosens a little on louder, sustained notes. She is at her best in slower music; “O mon Fernand” is sensitive, but its cabaletta “Venez, cruels!” is rather sedate in tempo and feeling, though I did like her decorations in the second verse. Her French is mediocre and her enunciation of words not particularly clear or idiomatic, and as a result the emotion is a little generalised.

Her beloved, Fernand, is sung by Celso Albelo. He was born in Tenerife and studied in Madrid; this Spanish heritage is very clear in his singing, which reminded me several times of Alfredo Kraus. He then spent a period with Carlo Bergonzi, whose influence is to be heard in the tonal modulation of his phrasing. His use of words is variable; in slower music he can be quite expressive, but in the more frenetically passionate moments he becomes very Mediterranean, relying simply on the vocal line for effect. Both of his arias are effective and well moulded with attention to dynamic variety, though neither is outstanding.

Italian baritone Mattia Olivieri is the unscrupulous king, Alphonse XI, and is a little more workaday than the other two principals. He does not quite have the richness of tone or elegance that the character needs (though he does make a very reasonable stab at a trill at one point). The lower notes lack resonance at times and seem to need to be forced. He lacks the sense of command requisite for the character, failing to convey authority. “Viens Léonor” and “Pour tant d’amour” are perfectly respectable performances, though not ones which lodge in the memory. He does, however, have far and away the best French of any member of the cast.

Ugo Guagliardo’s Balthazar has a solid, but rather flat-toned voice which does not really have the depth and resonance to convey the character’s spiritual standing. The comprimario parts are serviceably performed; Manuel Amati, especially, characterises the role of the initially haughty but ultimately repentant Don Gaspar very effectively.

The Orchestra and Chorus of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino under Fabio Luisi are excellent. Luisi has exactly the right style for this music and the detail and articulation of the orchestra are very impressive.

This is a perfectly respectable and enjoyable performance of the opera, though it certainly won’t join the pantheon of great performances. CD versions of the French version of Donizetti’s opera are not thick on the ground, especially ones with a booklet that contains a full libretto with English translation. One such is the highly praised 1999 version under Viotti with Kasarova and Vargas, but I cannot imagine that anyone who buys this set will not be perfectly content with it.

Paul Steinson

Previous review: Ralph Moore



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