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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Zoraida Di Granata - Melodramma eroico in two acts.
Libretto by Bartolomeo Merelli.
First performed at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, on the 28th January 1822.
Revised edition presented at the same theatre on the 7th January 1824
Given in new performing editions prepared by Chris Moss and Robert Roberts
Cast for the 1822 edition (CD 1, CD 2. CD 3 trs 1-9)
Almuzir, King of Granada. Bruce Ford (ten); Zoraida, in love with, and loved by, Abenamet, Majella Cullagh (sop); Abenamet, General of the Moors, Paul Austin Kelly (ten); Ali, Almuzir's confidant, Matthew Hargreaves (bass); Almanzor, friend of Abenamet, Dominic Natoli (ten); Ines, a Spanish slave and friend of Zoraida, Cristina Pastorello (sop)
Changes in cast for the 1824 revisions (CD 3 trs.10-14 and CD 4)
Abenamet, Diana Montague (mezzo)
The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir. The Academy of St Martin in the Fields/David Parry
Recorded at St. Clements Church, London. October and December 1998
OPERA RARA ORC17 [4CDs: 74.22 + 71.40 + 54.54 + 64.19]

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Late 17th century Italy was the birthplace of opera. In the following century the genre extended north and eastwards over the Alps to today’s Germany, where it flourished, and westward to France and England for a slower evolution. By the early 1800s opera was a dominant art form in Italy. The major centres of Milan, Naples, Venice and Rome each had at least two, and often three, theatres presenting opera. Singers came from Spain (Isobel Colbran, later to become Rossini’s wife and Manuel Garcia) and elsewhere. Many composers competed to furnish the demands of the theatres of Italy for new works. Following the premiere of Tancredi at Venice’s La Fenice in February 1813, Rossini was in a pre-eminent position, a situation he quickly consolidated with L’Italiana in Algeri in May of the same year. At this time Donizetti was still a student of the eminent teacher, scholar and composer Simone Mayr. He went on to spend two years studying, in Bologna at Mayr’s expense, with Padre Mattei a renowned teacher of counterpoint.

As Donizetti’s 21st birthday approached an eminent citizen of his native Bergamo bought his exemption from military service and with Mayr’s help he was contracted to write a two act opera for the Teatro San Luca, a minor theatre in Venice. This work, Enrico di Borgogna, premiered on November 14th 1816, was his third opera but the first to be performed in his lifetime. Music from Enrico can be heard on an Opera Rara issue titled ‘The Young Donizetti’ as can that of his fifth work, Le nozze in villa and his sixth Pietro il Grande. With the latter, Donizetti secured his first real success, the work going on to be performed in at least four other Italian cities as well as enjoying a second Venetian production in 1827. However, it was with his seventh opera, Zoraida Di Granata premiered in Rome in 1822 that the young Donizetti made his decisive breakthrough into the career of a full time composer. The resounding success of the opera came despite the recurrence of a similar misfortune to that which befell his Enrico. The prima donna, making her stage debut, was so overcome that she fainted at the end of act 1 and was forced to omit an aria and two duets in act 2 before being replaced by a ‘seconda donna’! In Zoraida Di Granata misfortune began prior to the premiere, when the young tenor contracted for the role of Abenamet burst a blood vessel in his throat and died within a few weeks. With no replacement available to sing the high-lying tessitura, Donizetti hastily re-wrote the role for contralto and in doing so he had to omit several items written for the tenor. In addition to these travails Donizetti had also to overcome the machinations of his fellow composer, and competitor, Pacini, who sought to undermine the production, as he had the works of other composers. This was despite the success of his own opera that preceded Zoraida Di Granata at the theatre. The details of the alterations that Donizetti had to make for the first performance of the opera are given in Jeremy Commons’ very detailed booklet essay (pp. 13-63). It is important to point out, lest it be missed in the detail of that essay, that the 1822 version recorded here is the work as Donizetti originally intended it to be performed, that is with two tenors and the omissions of the premiere re-instated. As such this recording is probably the first performance of the composer’s original intentions.

The decision makers, sponsors and staff at Opera Rara are serious musicologists as well as enthusiasts. Not content with recording Donizetti’s first intentions they add, as an extended appendix, the major additions and changes the composer made to the work when it was given, at the same theatre, in 1824. In the revised version the role of Abenamet was actually intended for contralto, but one whose status, vocal qualities and demands were far greater than the late substitute singer of the first production. Donizetti had to re-write the tenor arias originally omitted and add several numbers, most notably an extended scene in act 2 for Abenamet and Almuzir (CD 4 trs. 7-10) and an extended aria and cabaletta for the contralto in the finale (CD 4 trs 14-15). The original libretto was by Bartolomeo Merelli, poet for two of Donizetti’s earlier works. Morelli later became an impresario. His greatest contribution to Italian opera was to press on the young Verdi the libretto of Nabucco when the composer, in despair at the death of his wife and two children, and the failure of his opera Un giorno di regno, had decided to forsake music. Donizetti was present at the highly successful premiere of Nabucco and made favourable comments on the music. Jacopo Ferretti carried out the necessary re-writing of the libretto of the 1824 version of Zoraide, albeit rather too slowly for Donizetti’s patience. As well as extended discussion of the differences in the two versions in Jeremy Commons’ essay, the differences are also given, side by side, in tabular form (pp. 64-68).

The story of Zoraida Di Granata concerns the murderous and duplicitous Almuzir who wishes to marry Zoraida, the daughter of the late king who in turn loves Abenamet the victorious General of the Moors. To save Abenamet from the sentence of death passed on him consequent to the machinations of Almuzir, Zoraida agrees to the marriage. She survives Abenamet’s doubts as to her fidelity and somewhat implausibly is allowed to marry him.

The orchestrally lean version of 1822 is, as might be expected, more stylistically cohesive than the 1824 revision. The music of the revision is certainly more complex, and in some instances, imaginative. Some scholars have suggested it is more Rossinian. Be that as it may, in this Opera Rara issue, the 1824 revisions and additions benefit from the singing of Diana Montague as Abenamet. She is no contralto as we define that voice type today. Rather she is a flexible lyric mezzo with a wide range and variety of vocal colour over her considerable range. Miss Montague uses this colour, allied to smooth legato and clear diction to bring to life the additions and modifications of the 1824 revision, most notably the cavatina and cabaletta Era mia…Che mi giova (CD 3 trs13-14), the duet with Almuzir (CD 4 trs. 7-10) and final aria Quando un alma generosa (CD 4 trs. 14-15). It seems rather remiss of Opera Rara that Diana Montague’s participation as Abenamet is only noted, at least as far as I can see, in the captions to the photographs of her on pages 173 and 202 of the booklet!

In the favourable contemporary reviews of the 1822 premiere much praise was bestowed on Domenico Donzelli as Almuzir. It was noted that his baritonal tenor carried his chest register notably high. Similar strengths are found here with Bruce Ford’s singing. I would not describe him as a baritonal tenor, rather a true tenor with an unusually wide range, full-toned and strong at both extremes. These vocal strengths can be heard throughout both versions. A fine example of his range, expressiveness, and full voiced and sotto voce singing is to be heard in the aria Amarlo tento (CD 3 trs. 3-4). In a perfect world his voice would have a little more sap; there is the occasional touch of dry tone. That being said, there are few other singers around of such musicality and who understand and can realise the demands of this repertoire. As the tenor Abenamet of the 1822 version, Paul Austin Kelly sings the demanding music with pleasing tone, good diction and expression. He is particularly impressive in his long act 2 aria (CD 2 trs. 8-9) and scena (CD 2 trs. 10 and 13-16) where his portrayal of Abenamet’s agony in prison, and dilemma at the price Zoraida has paid for his release, is wholly conveyed. Likewise his skills in the earlier cavatina and cabaletta when he takes the concluding high note from the chest are impressive (CD 1 trs. 14-16) as is his range in the dramatic quartet Tanto propormi ardisei? as Abenamet refuses Almuzir’s request to cede Zoraida’s heart to him (CD 1 tr. 19). This is Donizetti writing at its very best and David Parry’s conducting is appropriately dramatic although at other points I feel he lingers too much. In this quartet and the following adagio and stretta (CD 1 trs. 20-21) the teamwork involved is very much in evidence and highly impressive. Also evident here, as elsewhere, are the vocal capabilities and contribution of Majella Cullagh as Zoraida. In her earlier cavatina, Vieni oh vieni and cabaletta (CD 1 trs 7-8), I was greatly impressed by the freedom and power of her singing. She reminds me of the young Joan Sutherland and if she hasn’t quite got the easy trill or pinpoint coloratura of the great diva, she has a commendable wide palette of vocal colour. Most importantly her singing is not mere display having both expression and feeling. It would, however, be further enhanced by clearer diction and attention to consonants. None the less, Majella Cullagh’s contribution to the success of this recording is significant and bodes great promise as well as realisation.

The recorded sound is pleasantly ambient and clear with the voices more forward than in some Opera Rara issues. The singing of the chorus is wholly idiomatic and vibrant whilst those taking the minor parts do so with aplomb. Much of this opera marks Donizetti’s first manifestation of musical genius. It provides a significant marker on his journey to greatness whilst having within it much to enjoy for its own sake. The 1824 revisions can be enjoyed for their own sake as well as providing quick and easy comparison of the rapid evolution of Donizetti’s maturing style, whether or not it was influenced by Rossini. The totality of the two editions of the opera provide much enjoyable listening, complemented by fine singing, and which can be enjoyed by all lovers of this fertile and seminal period of operatic composition in Italy. I recommend it without reservation as a worthy addition to the expanding availability of Donizetti’s operas on disc and which owes so much to Opera Rara’s research work and the support of the Peter Moores Foundation.

Robert J Farr

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