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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Dom Sébastien Roi De Portugal - opera in five acts (1837)
Zayda, a Moorish girl - Vesselina Kasarova (mezzo); Dom Sébastien, King of Portugal - Giuseppe Filianoti (ten); Dom Juam de Sylva, Grand Inquisitor - Alastair Miles (bass); Abayaldos, a chieftain - Simon Keenlyside (bar); Camoëns, a poet - Carmelo Corrado Caruso (bass); Dom Henrique - Robert Gleadow (bass); Dom Antonio - Lee Hickenbottom
The Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, London/Mark Elder
rec. Royal Opera House, London, 10, 13 September 2005; Ballet Music: Cadogan Hall, London, 11 September 2005.
Concert performance using the critical edition of the music published by Ricordi in 2003.
OPERA RARA ORC33 [3 CDs: 61.56 + 69.58 + 44.36] 


As late as 1837 Donizetti, despite the success of Anna Bolena (1830) and Lucia di Lamermoor (1835), was still on the treadmill of writing three or so operas each year. He had hoped for the post of Director of the Naples Conservatory, but a faction supporting Mercadante thwarted this prospect. Then his opera Poliuto, concerning Christian martyrdom in Roman times, was forbidden a staging in Naples at the personal insistence of the King, a deeply religious man. Donizetti, still suffering depression after the death of his wife, determined to go to Paris where censorship was less of an issue, remuneration far higher and the musical standards better. He hoped he might follow Rossini’s example and make enough money to retire from the frustrations of the theatre.

Matters got off to a good start in 1840 with his operas being performed in four Paris theatres to the chagrin of some native composers. The operas concerned included a French version of Lucia at the Renaissance Theatre. More importantly he agreed to write two operas in French for presentation at The Opéra. For the first he turned to Poliuto and engaged Eugène Scribe to produce a French text based on Cammarano’s Italian libretto. Whilst awaiting the ever-dilatory Scribe to complete the new libretto, Donizetti wrote and presented La Fille du régiment at the Opéra Comique on 11 February 1840. For the revised Poliuto he rewrote the recitatives, divided act one in two and wrote a new finale. The new four-act version was premiered as Les Martyrs at The Opéra on 10 March 1840 with the second work in French, La favorite, following in December.

Following this stay in Paris, Donizetti visited Rome and Milan, where he attended the premiere of Verdi’s Nabucco. Following Adelia and Maria Padilla in Rome he achieved a huge success in Vienna with Linda de Chamounix, premiered at the Vienna Karntnerthor on 19 May 1842 and was appointed Kapellmeister to the Austrian Court. This appointment allowed him six months leave each year to pursue his career elsewhere. Things were really going in the direction Donizetti wanted. Back in Paris, the premiere of Don Pasquale was a great success at the Théâtre Italien in 1843 and was followed by Maria de Rohan in Vienna in June 1844. Whilst in Vienna Donizetti started on the composition of Dom Sébastien Roi De Portugal, a five act Grand Opera, including a ballet he had agreed to write for the Paris Opera. Scribe was the librettist.

The complicated plot of Dom Sébastien starts in Lisbon where the King falls in love with the Muslim princess Zayda. He goes on an ill-fated war in Morocco where his army is slaughtered by the troops of her lover, and father’s general, Abayaldos. In the opera Dom Sébastien and the poet Camoëns, who had accompanied him, escape with their lives and return to Portugal to witness the King’s supposed funeral mounted by his uncle who has usurped the throne. Camoëns promotes a disturbance claiming the King is alive and is arrested, but Sebastien steps forward to his defence. The Grand Inquisitor, who has his own agenda of ceding Portugal to Spain, denounces Sébastien as an impostor and threatens him with the power of the Inquisition and has him arrested. In prison, Sébastien is joined by Zayda who hopes to aid his escape but is denounced and joins him in captivity. Sébastien is offered the opportunity of freedom if he will renounce his right to the throne and cede it to Philip II of Spain. In a weak fifth act he refuses to accept, changes his mind, and then whilst trying to escape to a boat brought to the prison by Camoëns, Sébastien and Zayda die as the rope leading them down from the prison tower is slashed. The opera concludes with Dom Antonio declaring himself King but the Grand Inquisitor showing him the document signed by Sébastien ceding the throne to Philip of Spain.

In my review of Les martyrs, I note that independent of the quality of the singing and recording it is the maturity of Donizetti’s musical creation that is so captivating. It for me indicated a significant step in compositional development much as Luisa Miller does in the Verdi oeuvre. Arias extend into duets and trios with an associated orchestral complexity that marks a significant development in his compositional style. In Dom Sébastien the music reaches a further level of sophistication and complexity albeit there is rather dark patina that derives from the plot. I had never managed to track down a copy of the live recording of the 1998 performance at Bergamo with Sabbatini in the title role and which, my bel canto friend Lew Schneider informs me, circulates on DVD in America. Accordingly I looked forward in eager anticipation when I heard of the concert performances at Covent Garden in September 2005 and that Opera Rara would be present. Then I feared a slip between cup and lip as I read that Renato Bruson had withdrawn at short notice in the vital role of Camoëns and that at the first of the two performances Simon Keenlyside, as Abayaldos, was suffering from a severe cold. I need not have worried about Keenlyside who sings strongly throughout. I was doubtful about the casting of Bruson this late in his career. Fine actor that he still is, his voice has lost the bloom that defined him as the finest Donizetti baritone of his generation twenty or so years ago. Carmelo Corrado Caruso, who sang the role in the second cast at Bergamo was the chosen substitute. His rather thin and wavery tone does not do justice to the important part of Camoëns who gets the one aria from the work, O Lisbonne, ô ma patria (O Lisbon, O my fatherland. CD 2 tr.13) that has achieved popularity outside complete performances. Another Italian, Giuseppe Filianoti, sings Dom Sébastien with a rather reedy tone and tight top to his voice. Consequently the unique, for Donizetti, ending of Act II, with Sébastien's aria Seul sur a terre (CD 2 tr. 10), goes for little. Lew Schneider tells me Giuseppe Sabbatini sings this memorably in the 1998 Bergamo recording. The best singing on the male side comes from the British contingent with Simon Keenlyside’s Abayaldos showing no signs of vocal restriction or sinus congestion. Equally impressive is the singing of Alastair Miles as the Grand Inquisitor. I have often found his lean bass lacking in depth and sonority. In this performance he seems to find extra colour and an added vocal richness. These Brits, and those in the comprimario roles not only provide the best singing but also superior command of French. Although there are a few native French singers on the international stage it is a pity none could be found for this performance. It is certainly a long time since there was a Francophone singer around who could have tackled the mezzo role of Zayda sung here with dramatic conviction, good tone, and variable French, by Vesselina Kasarova. Dramatic conviction and involvement are the virtues also to be found in the singing of the Chorus of the Royal Opera House who are both characterful and vibrant and are matched for quality and commitment by their orchestral counterparts.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the singing, the fact that the whole holds together to allow appreciation of Donizetti’s considerable work is due to Mark Elder on the rostrum. Living near Manchester, I have come to appreciate his conducting strengths, particularly in the concert performances of operas and excerpts, since he took the helm at the Hallé Orchestra. It is a great pity that our philistine TV channels have not shown the two-part film on Donizetti that he has made. His conducting of Dom Sébastien Roi De Portugal on this recording shows his knowledge and sympathy with the bel canto idiom. Clearly that sympathy extends to Donizetti’s music equalling his renowned conducting and knowledge of Verdi. Elder’s conducting of the act 2 Ballet Music (CD 1 trs. 15-17) is a sheer delight. Eagle-eared listeners with quality hi-fi equipment will notice a slight difference in ambience from the rest; a fact explained by separate sessions and recording venue.

This recording, issued with the financial support of the Peter Moores Foundation, comes in the usual Opera Rara quality presentation. This includes a sturdy folding box outer containing a scholarly essay from Dr Jeremy Commons, a performance history, a synopsis in three languages and full libretto with English translation. Unlike the performance of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, recorded by Opera Rara after concert performances at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London in July 2002 (review), the applause has been edited out; for which I am grateful.

Just when Donizetti’s life seemed to be on the up, the converse was the case. Like Rossini before him, and Verdi later, he had his frustrations with The Opéra and also with Scribe the librettist during the preparations for Dom Sébastien. More importantly, whilst in Vienna the composer had shown signs of declining health and during the extensive rehearsals in Paris he was reported to have exhibited erratic behaviour and flown in to uncontrollable rages. Nonetheless the production came to fruition, and was premiered on 13 November 1843. To Donizetti’s frustration Dom Sébastien was only modestly received by the Parisian audience. A revised edition had a better reception in Vienna the following year. But by then Donizetti’s health was in serious decline and far from enjoying the fruits of his more recent successes he became increasingly ill from the effects of tertiary syphilis, known as general paralysis of the insane. He became paralysed with the consequent cerebra-spinal degeneration and was placed in an institution. For the last 17 months of his life he was paralysed and finally comatose. Dom Sébastien Roi Du Portugal was his final opera. It is a great epitaph and shows clear indications as to how the composer might have responded to the challenge of the emergence of Verdi were it not for his decline and eventual premature death at the age of fifty-one.

Robert J Farr



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