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