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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Francesca di Foix

Melodramma giocoso in one act.
Libretto by Domenico Gilardoni.
First performed at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples on 30 May 1831
Il Re, The King, in the flower of' his life, Pietro Spagnoli (bass-bar); Il Conte, The Count, Alfonso Antoniozzi (bass); La Contessa, The Countess, Francesca di Foix, Annick Massis (sop); Il Duca, The Duke, Bruce Ford (ten); Il Paggio, Edmondo the page, Jennifer Larmore (mezzo)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Antonello Allemandi
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London, March 2004
OPERA RARA ORC28 [76.42]

 

Opera Rara has issued this Francesca di Foix alongside, as distinct from together with, Donizetti’s earlier Elvida. Both are one-act works and were recorded at the same series of sessions and at the same venue in March 2004. They also share the same conductor, orchestra, choral forces and four principal singers.

Francesca di Foix is described as a ‘Melodramma giocoso’ or jocular melodrama. For 1831 it was an unusual choice of subject. The plot concerns a jealous Count (bass) who keeps his beautiful wife Francesca (sop) away from the court, fostering the rumour of her ugliness. At the instigation of the King (bass-bar) a certain Duke (ten) together with his Page (mezzo), a cousin of the wife, plot to entice her to the court where she is admired and presented under an assumed name. Her husband is at first reluctant to acknowledge the beautiful woman as his wife. However, when the King offers her in marriage to the winner of a tournament, and she describes her previous husband as jealous but deceased, he can keep silent no longer. He confesses his lies and jealousy and is rebuked. The Page explains how Francesca was enticed to the court. Everybody celebrates and hopes the Count has learnt his lesson.

At the time of the composition of Elvida, his 16th opera premiered in July 1826, Donizetti was in the foothills of operatic composition. By the time of the premiere of Francesca di Foix, his 33rd opera five years later, he was basking in the recognition brought by the success of Anna Bolena premiered in Milan on December 26th 1830. Anna Bolena quickly spread throughout the theatres of Italy and was heard in London’s Haymarket Theatre on July 8th 1831. It became the first Donizetti opera to be presented in Paris in September that year. Anna Bolena was the culmination of Donizetti’s earlier works and the impetus for the highly productive period that saw a series of great romantic tragedies. With a libretto by Romani, but without a contract or theatre for its presentation, Donizetti embarked on the composition of ‘Gianni di Parigio’. This work was to be a vehicle for the tenor Rubini who had created the role of Percy in Anna Bolena and who sang the role in London and Paris. In the event Gianni di Parigio was not staged until 1839. It is relevant here because it seems to have been composed contemporaneously with Francesca di Foix and to share at least some musical themes with it. In a scholarly booklet essay Jeremy Commons notes some examples where Donizetti re-used music from earlier operas and later was to do likewise with music from Francesca.

Back in Naples after the success of Anna Bolena, Donizetti had to fulfil contractual obligations to the impresario Domenico Barbaia (often spelt Barbaja). William Ashcroft, in the only readily available biography of Donizetti in English that I know of, suggests both Francesca di Foix and the one act farsa ‘La romanzesca a l’uomo nero’ (Opera Rara ORC 19) premiered three weeks after Francesca, were Donizetti’s attempts to fulfil that contract in the quickest and easiest manner. In the event, Francesca di Foix was presented on the name day of the new King Fernando II in the inappropriately large Teatro San Carlo, the great royal theatre of Naples. It was politely rather than enthusiastically received. Deemed too small a work for the theatre it was transferred for two performances to the smaller Teatro Fondo. In all the work only received seven performances before being forgotten. Opera Rara revived it for performances in English in London in 1982. Donizetti certainly admired the music sufficiently to re-use parts of it in other, later, operas. It has much greater musical cohesion and compositional sophistication than the earlier Elvida, as one would hope and expect given Donizetti’s greater experience. Donizetti moves the plot along with brief ariettas, duets and ensembles. Major solos are restricted to Francesca’s entrance Ah! Ti ottenni alfin and its cabaletta Donzelle, se vi stimula (trs. 8-9), Edmondo’s É una giovane straniera, part of a canzonetta (trs. 16-17) and the Dukes recitative and romanza Ve’ come… Dorme che ognor (trs. 21-22) where Bruce Ford’s tone, diction and expression are exemplary. Annick Massis matches him for variety of tone and expression and encompasses the florid demands of the role with security and ease. She uses a lighter tone than as Elvida, varying it between her uncertainty at the enticement and her flirtatiousness as she teases her husband as they depart for the tournament (tr. 20). Pietro Spagnoli and Alfonso Antoniozzi in the lower voiced roles of the King and Count are well differentiated in timbre (tr. 27). Both sing with fluency, smooth legato, clear diction and convey a good sense of characterisation. As the Page Edmondo, Jennifer Larmore makes what she can of the brief canzonetta and ditty É una giovane straniera referred to. She sings throughout with creamy tone and good legato avoiding any plumminess in the lower part of her voice; a good travesti characterisation. The chorus are major protagonists and sing with verve as the conductor, Antonello Allemandi, moves the plot along in what seems to my ears to be a wholly idiomatic manner.

In addition to his erudite essay on the opera, Jeremy Commons provides an excellent synopsis that is also translated into French, German and Italian. For perfection the synopsis would have been track related. The libretto is given in full with English translation. Francesca di Foix gives few hints of the great romantic operas that were to flow from Donizetti’s pen over the next few years. None the less, this world premiere recording, made possible by the support of the Peter Moores Foundation, is to be commended for the quality of its performance and recording. All lovers of Donizetti’s operas, and of the bel canto genre, will want to add this well packaged and presented performance to their collection.

Robert J. Farr



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