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Donizetti, Linda di Chamounix (Concert Performance): Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Conductor: Sir Mark Elder. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 14.9.2009 (JPr)

With Britain still gripped by recession, regardless of any apparent ‘green shoots’, Donizetti’s 1842 rarity about some tenant farmers who lack the income to renew their lease and face bankruptcy is very topical as an opener to the new season. If this is sheer coincidence on the part of the schedulers at the Royal Opera House then someone there must have Derren Brown-like abilities for predicting the future.

Donizetti was a prolific composer and wrote about 75 operas but only a dozen or so remain reasonably well known to operagoers of today: Linda di Chamounix is not one of those. The story is a timeless one – at least for opera composers of the nineteenth-century – and concerns a penniless farmer’s beautiful and virtuous daughter, Linda, who is in love with, Carlo, a rich Viscount posing as a poor painter in disguise. A lecherous Marquis is eager to be allowed his droit de seigneur over Linda - or something similar - so the girl is sent away to Paris for her own good. She now knows that Carlo is the Marquis’s nephew but when the Marquis pursues her to Paris, he does not realise that Carlo is looking after the girl in a relationship that is still chaste. Linda’s father, Antonio, arrives in Paris looking for his master the Viscount and mistakenly curses Linda for becoming the Viscount’s mistress. Linda loses her senses when she hears that her beloved Carlo has married someone else deemed more socially acceptable by his family. Eventually, on Linda’s return to Chamounix all misunderstanding is resolved and Carlo’s earlier marriage seems to be forgotten about. Linda regains her mental health, the young lovers are reunited and all’s well that ends – implausibly – well.

Think L’elisir d’amore mixed with Lucia di Lammermoor. I can imagine it being staged but there is not much scope for action - a procession here, some farce there - but mostly it is a rather static work with several confrontational duets. The libretto also involves much imploring to the Heavens for this and that which is another reason why it is not really in tune with twenty-first century musical tastes. The original cause of all this religiosity was the fact that the opera was written for deeply-catholic Vienna but the religious sentiment is distinctly at odds with the broad comedy of this melodramma semiserio. It took me a while to get used to the references to Savoyards - a troupe of wandering Gilbert and Sullivan performers maybe (!) - before realising that the action (such as it is) is set in the French province of Savoy. 

There is a lovely pastoral opening to this opera, some far from routine music and many passages that clearly left their mark on the young Verdi who was just beginning to compose himself in the 1840s. The contributions from the enhanced chorus and the orchestra had a fine sense of Donizettian style but the performance overall was really a recording session for Opera Rara with a paying audience. Inevitably in these circumstances, most of the cast sang for the recording and were not trying to communicate the drama otherwise. Onstage noise was kept to a minimum, everyone singing faced resolutely forward and there was little interaction between any of the singers.

When Italian baritone, Alessandro Corbelli, loped on in Act II having changed out of his Act I tails into a light-coloured jacket and flamboyant red bow-tie he looked as though he had inherited some genes from Marty Feldman combined with Harpo Marx and Geraint Evans. His remarkable buffo villain though was the only role that engaged the audience in the story: his bel canto patter delivery was compelling and he had a particularly nice line in sardonic ‘Ha-Ha-Has’.

There was good solid singing from Ludovic Tézier as Linda’s father Antonio and from Balint Szabó, as the Prefect, especially in their Act I duet. At one point Antonio is described in Act II as being ‘sad, poor and hunched’ but Tézier sounded strong throughout and his voice was generally too youthful for Elizabeth Sikora’s more quavery soprano as Linda’s mother. Marianna Pizzolato made a sympathetic Pierotto, a trouser role as the heroine’s young friend; her voice had warmth and richness and hers was an auspicious Covent Garden debut.

Another singer I would be pleased to hear again is the fresh-faced American tenor, Stephen Costello even though his voice is destined more for Verdi and Puccini than Donizetti. It is very forward and full-throated and, as such, lacks the refinement of light and shade that Donizetti requires but I am sure he will develop more personality and characterisation as his career progresses. He was able to communicate some of Carlo’s ardour and agony reasonably well and seemed to relax into the role as the evening progressed.

For me – and I believe for many other audience members on both nights of this performance – the weakest link was Cuban-American Eglise Gutiérrez’s Linda. I find it difficult to believe there are not a number of other young singers better able to make more of this opportunity than she did. She has a pleasantly burnish mezzo-ish quality to her middle voice and undoubtedly would be a great Carmen. But Linda requires a technically accurate coloratura soprano - a Queen of the Night type - with laser-bright top notes beyond high C. Sadly that was not Ms Gutiérrez at least on this showing when her attempts at these notes seemed to hang around the back of her throat with no place to go. Mark Elder was very indulgent to his ‘star’ his baton slowing whenever she was singing and this was probably wise because under pressure her voice lost focus. Her Act II ‘mad scene’ came and went without any real change in her demeanour and she seemed totally disengaged from the drama throughout the evening. The recording will probably sound better of course once the engineers have been able to tweak it.

Although absent from Covent Garden since 1887 Linda di Chamounixhas been heard as recently as 1997 when Mark Elder led a performance of it at the Royal Festival Hall. He clearly has a passion for this music but my heart sank rather when I opened the programme and read about ‘the Donizetti critical edition used’. This often means, as was probably the case here, that every cut is restored and that any idea of sensible performing practice, i.e. having an evening of reasonable length, is abandoned for the sake of playing every note that Donizetti wrote. In the end we had something not far short of three hours of music – though it must be admitted that the time went by quite quickly and - if I set aside my strong reservations about Ms Gutiérrez - this was an auspicious start to the Royal Opera’s new season.

Jim Pritchard

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