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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
La Favorite - Highlights from the original French version.
Libretto by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz.
First performed at the Paris Opéra on December 2nd 1840.
Fernand, a novice monk in love with Leonor, Jean-Luc Viala (ten); Alphonse XI, King of Castille, Jean-Marc Ivaldi (bar); Léonore de Guzman, mistress of the King, Hélène Jossaud (mezzo); Balthazar, abbot of the monastery, Lionel Sarrazin (bass)
Chorus and orchestra of the Centre de Musique d’Aquitaine/Jacques Pernoo
Recorded as the sound track of an abridged version of the work for television to include the best of the score whilst preserving the dramatic continuity. No recording dates given. First published by Erato Disques in 1985.
WARNER APEX 2564 622082-2 [62.17]

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Donizetti went to Paris in 1835, at Rossini’s invitation, to present his opera Marino Faliero at the Théâtre Italien. This visit also introduced Donizetti to the ‘Grand Opera’ style of Meyerbeer and Halévy. He also discovered, as other Italian predecessors had done, the significantly higher musical and theatrical standards that existed in Paris compared with his own country; even in Naples and Milan. Equally appealing to a composer who 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.

Marino Faliero was premiered on March 12th 1835. It was rather overshadowed by Bellini’s I Puritani premiered at the same theatre a couple of months before. Both operas featured four of the greatest singers of the day in Giulia Grisi, Giovanna Battista Rubini, Antonio Tamburini and Luigi Lablache. Whilst in Paris, Donizetti was made Chevalier du Légion d’Honneur. With his opera 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 pre-eminent position among his contemporaries. Given this status his return to Paris was inevitable and in 1838 he presented a French version Lucia at the Théâtre de Renaissance. He followed this with three operas in Paris in 1840. La Fille du Regiment at the Opéra Comique (11th February), Les Martyrs (10th April) and La Favorite on December 2nd, both the latter at The Opéra. (The booklet gives an incorrect date of November 2nd). 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 Renaissance. However when that theatre went bankrupt Donizetti expanded acts 2 and 3 and adding the lovely aria for Fernand, Ange si pur (tr.12) known to all tenors of the Italian school as Spirito Gentil, to act 4. When the opera was first performed in Italy, in translation, it was titled Leonora di Guzman. It became known by its Italian title of La favorita when given at La Scala in 1843. Over the next seventy years over 700 performances of it were given at the Paris Opéra.

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 goes off to fight and returns an acclaimed hero. As his reward he asks the King for her hand. She is in fact Léonor de Guzman the King’s mistress who confesses her shame. Bereft Fernand returns to the monastery where the woman joins him to seek his forgiveness and dies.

Until recently most collectors have come to know the Italian version of the work through Decca’s 1974 recording of the work with Pavarotti as Fernando and Fiorenza Cossotto as Leonora. A very famous recording of the French version, made in 1912 based on a Paris Opera production, is really only for avid collectors. More recently RCA issued a slightly shortened French version, to fit on two CDs, featuring Vesselina Kasarova and Ramon Vargas. These highlights derive from the sound-track of an abridged version made for television. It may be that the appropriate persona of the singers for television was considered more important than their skills as singers.

All the soloists here lack that which would have elevated this worthwhile issue above the average. Appropriately, the best voice to be heard is that of Jean-Luc Viala as Fernand. His is a good quality light lyric tenor of the French school with a free upward extension and sense of style. He phrases Donizetti’s graceful lines with feeling and a fair legato and can meet the high notes in Une ange, une femme inconnue (tr. 2) and elsewhere, without strain or tightening. Likewise his Ange si pur (tr. 12) is well phrased and a pleasure to listen to. Lionel Sarrazin as Balthazar, abbot of the monastery, whilst conveying the humanity of the role well has gravitas without the ideal sonority (trs. 1-3 and 11). The baritone Jean-Marc Ivaldi as Alphonse XI is dry-toned and strained, his voice does not lie easily on my ear (trs. 7-9). As Léonore de Guzman, Hélène Jossaud has a quick vibrato that she uses to give meaning to her singing. She portrays her part well enough (trs. 10 and 13-14) without being as thrilling or as vocally distinguished as either Kasarova or Cossotto on their recordings.

The booklet has a track listing and a brief synopsis in English, French and German. The recording is warm and well balanced between voices and orchestra. Despite my reservations about some of the singing I am pleased to welcome this disc. At bargain price it provides an introduction to an opera that has all the virtues of Donizetti’s melodic invention, but which has sadly gone somewhat out of fashion.

Robert J Farr

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