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Seen and Heard Opera Review
Gaetano Donizetti: Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal (in concert), Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera / Mark Elder, conductor, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 10 September, 2005 (ED)
Vesselina Kasarova - Zayda
Giuseppe Filianoti - Dom Sébastien
Carmelo Corrado Caruso - Camoëns
Alastair Miles - Dom Juam de Sylva
Simon Keenlyside - Abayaldos
Robert Gleadow- Dom Henrique
John Upperton - Dom Antonio/First Inquisitor
Andrew Slater - Ben-Selim
Martyn Hill - Dom Luis
It has all the ingredients for a cracking night at the opera: a warrior king supposedly killed on the battlefield is saved by a lady, whose life he previously spared; their love sparks recrimination from her beloved – and all the time the machinations of the Inquisition are at work to see Philip II of Spain enthroned the new King of Portugal. But for each reason it has going for it there is one against it too. It’s sheer scale and a rather unwieldy libretto must surely be among them, but so to are taste, style and history.
When the Paris opera commissioned the work they no doubt hoped for a French equivalent of Donizetti’s Italian language successes. The libretto, in French, was obtained from Eugene Scribe, partner of Auber and Meyerbeer. And here the problems began: it’s difficult to see Donizetti as the successor to those whose place he had taken. Nonetheless, the commission was fulfilled with a work that is neither bel canto nor wholly grand opera in either the accepted notions of the French or Italian schools. Where the Opera hoped for a great ensemble work, they were left with a vast canvas on which individuals largely play out the action, relegating ensemble to a position of lesser importance.
An audacious move then by the Royal Opera to open the season with such a work, not least considering that most of the cast were new to their roles. There were two important exceptions however, Giuseppe Filianoti as Dom Sébastien and Carmelo Corrado Caruso as his faithful retainer, the poet, Camoëns. No doubt their experience helped to steady the evening, although Corrado Caruso was a late replacement for the advertised Renato Bruson.
The other dominant factor was the innate sense of drama that comes through Donizetti’s writing. That this was so clear is largely due to Elder’s grasp of the score and his determination to propel it forward. The orchestra responded with unusual vigour, and showed particular strength in brass and mid-range strings. Divided basses and percussion, presumably to help balance the recording Opera Rara are to produce from these two performances, also enhanced the soundscape, as did onstage military field drums at the start, bells during the ballet and off-stage trumpets towards the close of the work. The chorus’ contribution was notable particularly in the funeral scene of Act III, where their rapt tone effectively lent stillness in the midst of an action-laden plot. Elder judged this also impeccably.
Giuseppe Filianoti made his operatic debut in Bologna as Dom Sébastien. His clear youthful tenor, ideally suited to lighter heroic roles, was finely projected. Only during the Act II ending when reflecting on love and a soldier’s life did he suffer vocal difficulties. Carmelo Corrado Caruso’s portrayal of Camoëns brought strength and further honour to the bond between the two men. Always proud in voice and deed, this was a man sure of purpose.
Alastair Miles’ Dom Juam de Sylva and Simon Keenlyside’s Abayaldos portrayals were of scheming and vengeful men obsessed by power and their own honour. Miles’ darker tone did something to bring Keenlyside’s clarity of diction to the fore. Both delivered amply through facial acting, gesture and bearing as much as through their voices. The other minor roles, all assigned to male voices, were delivered with surety of place within the wider vision.
Which leaves the only solo female role: Vesselina Kasarova’s Zayda. It’s a roller coaster of a role and requires a singer of high order to take it on. Kasarova’s voice production, though never conventional, in recent years has become markedly mannered, to an extent reflecting her stage presence. These might attempt to compensate for certain vocal problems in the mid-range, but there was notable strength in the chest voice. A pity that the language was treated so approximately with Slavic vowels littered everywhere. However, looks gave her Zayda strength of purpose that a fully-blown production could not enhance. Not perfect, but not an abject failure either.´
This might be said for the opera as a whole, had the performance not shown the work to be dramatically ripe for rediscovery. A pity then that opera house economics have until now all but prevented its staging in recent times. But as a curtain-raiser to an inventive and adventurous season this was an absolute success.
There is one further performance on 13 September at 7p.m. Opera Rara will be releasing the recording taken from these performances in February 2007.