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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Emilia Di Liverpool  - dramma semi-serio in two acts (1824)
L’Eremitaggio Di Liwerpool - dramma semi-serio in two acts (1829)
Emilia - Yvonne Kenny (sop); Candida - Anne Mason (sop); Luigia (Bettina) - Bronwen Mills (sop); Don Romuldo (Count Asdrubale) - Sesto Bruscantini (Buffa); Claudio Di Liverpool - Emilia’s father - Geoffrey Dolton (bar); Federico (Colonel Villars) - Chris Merritt (ten); Count (Giacomo) Christopher Thornton-Holmes (bar)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/David Parry
rec. Conway Hall, London, December 1986
OPERA RARA ORC8 [3 CDs: 72.00 + 73.03 + 54.06]

It is now twenty years since this recording first appeared. It was not the first Donizetti opera to appear from Opera Rara, the composer featuring prominently in their first ten opera recordings. The Peter Moores Foundation supports this latest 2006 box format. Unlike some of the other Donizetti operas in the Opera Rara catalogue, there is the significant difference with the two Emilia operas that both had a British performance history in the City of Liverpool in 1957 and 1987. The first of those dates was even before Opera Rara started concert performances in London let alone embarked on the building, under the guidance and direction of Patric Schmid, their extensive catalogue of bel canto recordings, continuing steady expansion with the assistance of the Peter Moores Foundation. The 1957 performances were initiated by the Liverpool Music Group in preparation for the 750th anniversary of the award of the City Charter by King John. The group launched an extensive search for some appropriate artistic subject to illuminate the occasion. With musicology a neglected study, the group and Fritz Spiegel, delved into the musical archives on the lookout for a theatrical piece that might have some conceivable bearing on Liverpool. They came up with Donizetti’s opera Emilia Di Liverpool and a performance of the neglected work was given on 12 June 1957.
Emilia, premiered in 1824, was Donizetti’s twelfth staged opera or, according to some commentators, his fifteenth. Historical accuracy was not the name of the game for the Liverpool delvers, rather the discovery and the event. What was performed on that 1957 occasion was Donizetti’s 1828 revision, properly titled L’Ermitaggio di Liwerpool: take note of the spelling and the use of the letter W. The librettist, like Donizetti, had not much idea of the location of Liverpool, describing it as being in the mountains a few leagues north of London. In fact when it comes to the detail of the libretto, particularly of the 1828 version, the name of London is dominant over the use of Liverpool. No matter, at least Emilia’s father is a sea captain and owner of a vessel - at that time Liverpool was the largest seaport in the world.
The seminal Liverpool performances in June 1957 substituted the extensive dialogue, present in both versions, with a humorous narration by Bernard Miles, renowned for his off-the-wall monologue reductions of Shakespeare’s plays often heard on BBC radio as well as in the British Theatre. The BBC followed up the Liverpool performance with a broadcast three months later featuring an unknown Australian coloratura soprano called Joan Sutherland in the eponymous role. This was conducted by John Pritchard and broadcast on the BBC Home Service. Again this performance was of the 1828 revision and the work was still referred to as Emilia di Liverpool. The performance included a reduction of Bernard Miles’s narration and was preceded by an elegant introduction about Liverpool by Spiegel. Private recordings of this broadcast appeared on LP from Voce (30) and EJS including the Bernard Miles text. The EJS version contains the full Fritz Spiegel introduction including his wonderful description of Liverpool. For this information I am indebted to my friend the American bel canto aficionado Lew Schneider who sent me the sleeve notes for the Voce issue, by Melvyn Jahn. There he states that both sources of the recording point to one single acetate source with the LPs produced in a manner ‘to correct the pitch and improve the sound’, though ‘not always with success’. Lew also tells me that the US Berkshire Record Outlet has just issued a catalogue addendum indicating a restock of the Myto CD of that performance (Berkshire cat. #135774. Cost $US5.99) on a single CD but excluding the Miles narration. Within the limits of the sound and corrections of pitch, Lew believes that Sutherland ends with a high E flat making it as exciting as her finale in Lucrezia Borgia.
The first version of Emilia Di Liverpool arose from Donizetti’s relationship with the theatres of Naples. This relationship had got off to a good start with La Zingara (The Gypsy Maiden) premiered at the small Teatro Nuovo in May 1822. Despite his succeeding works for the Nuovo and Royal Theatres of Naples, the Fondo and San Carlo being less successful, he was commissioned by the impresario of the Nuovo to write a semi-seria opera for the 1824 season. The requirements of the populist small theatre were very specific. Works must involve musical items alternated with spoken dialogue, the latter ideally suited to the resident comic bass who spoke it in Neapolitan dialect and every opera commissioned had to contain such a role. There is no known librettist. Jeremy Commons, in an extended 1959 essay in the accompanying Opera Rara booklet, relates it to earlier stage work and to another opera. Premiered in July 1824, Donizetti’s Emilia Di Liverpool was not a complete success, and despite the composer’s high hopes it disappeared after eight performances. He also had unfulfilled hopes for performances in Vienna, in preparation for which he wrote new music. Four years later, with the help of librettist Giuseppe Checcherini, whose wife had sung at the premiere, Donizetti revised the work. The revision was radical involving the removal of eight numbers and adding four new ones. Retitled L’Eremitaggio Di Liwerpool (noting the spelling) the work was no more popular than the original, lasting a mere six performances. French musicologist Giles Rico, working from all the available manuscripts in Bergamo, Naples and Paris has produced a new edition taking the best music from both versions and with minimum dialogue. This was performed in Liverpool to celebrate the city being European Capital of Culture 2008 on New Year’s Eve 2007 and the following first week of the new year. The First Night is reviewed on Musicweb-International’s live review section Seen and Heard.

As already noted, the librettist, like Donizetti, had not much idea of the location of Liverpool. However, whilst the title of the opera was changed between the versions, as were the names of various members of the cast, the story remains basically the same with the opera being set in a village in a mountainous area some ‘few leagues’ north of London. The plot concerns Emilia, daughter of the Count of Liverpool, who, although promised in marriage to a nobleman has eloped and been seduced by Federico (Villars in the revision) and then deserted, causing her mother to die of shame. Her father, captain of a vessel and defrauded of his assets by an agent, has disappear abroad and is believed to have died a slave. Emilia retires to a hermitage founded by her aunt Candida to give comfort to the poor and passing travellers. Many years’ later three travellers seek refuge at the hermitage after their carriage has been overturned in a storm and having been rescued by local mountaineers and a heavily bearded man. One of the three turns out to be Federico whilst the bearded sailor dressed as a slave is Emilia’s father Claudio. Also among the three are Emilia’s seducer and the nobleman to whom she was originally promised, but had never met, and who is travelling with a new intended fiancée. After various complicated recognitions, Claudio challenges Federico to a duel. Federico, despite taking a fancy to the nobleman’s new fiancée, also in the overturned coach, repents his behaviour. Emilia, still in love, forgives him, whilst her father resists revenge and generously agrees to their marriage; a happy ending being de rigueur in heavily censored Naples.
Although written six years before his Anna Bolena, composed for Milan and which brought him international fame, the music of both versions of Emilia has plenty of melody and vivacity. The 1828 revision in particular has effective dramatic moments and even some of the romantic appeal that manifests itself so prominently in the more famous Lucia di Lamermoor of 1835. The Rossinian influence in the choice of a semi-seria plot might be tenuous, but that of an overturned horse carriage in a storm has all too obvious connotations with La Cenerentola. Musically Rossini’s influence is particularly obvious in Claudio’s act one aria In dura achiavitu (CD 1 trs.10-13) and the fast patter of the second act duet between the Count and Don Romualdo, both from the 1824 original version. The act finales of this version also have the vibrancy that characterised so many of Rossini’s works. The new music of the 1828 revision is both distinctly more mature as well as less Rossinian. Checcherini rewrote all the dialogue as well as the words for all the new music of the revised version and their influence on the composer is evident in his response. The spoken dialogue for both versions is omitted in these Opera Rara recordings, but the words are printed in blue in the full libretto with English translation. I strongly suggest that listeners keep a finger on the pause button when first listening so as to better get the gist of what is happening between the musical numbers.
The lack of the extensive spoken dialogue on the recording has the slight downside of denying Sesto Bruscantini the opportunity to invest the missing words, with his skilful nuances and perfect Italian. This would have filled out the role of Don Romualdo (Count Asdrubale): not that it would necessarily be desirable in Naples dialect! Although past his peak years, Bruscantini’s tone, variety of vocal colour and sheer Italianata in his way with the sung words is a vocal highlight of the recording (CD 1 tr.27). That said, Christopher Thornton-Holmes matches him in the fast patter in the minor part of the Count (CD 2 tr.2). Geoffrey Dolton is firm and of distinctly different timbre as Claudio, Emilia’s father (CD 1 trs.10-13). As the eventually-repentant seducer Federico (Colonel Villars,), Chris Merritt has a fine lyric tenor voice as well as accuracy, flexibility and an Italianate patina that I find attractive (CD 1 trs.9-10, CD2 trs.8-10). Incidentally in the latter duet in which Claudio seeks revenge on Federico, and which is repeated in the revised version, the track listing (page 10) incorrectly uses the name Federico instead as Villars; the libretto (page 267) is correct.
Of the women singers the greatest burden is borne by Emilia herself. In this role the Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny is light-toned and vocally flexible and not lacking in elegance of phrase (CD 2 trs. 23-24). While her vocal depth is not ideal, she has a rounded voice and ideal dramatic thrust. She makes little of the rondo finale of the 1828 revision that Donizetti imported, in total, from his own Alahor in Granata. Similarly she makes little impact at the vocal climax that precedes the unusual orchestral finish (CD 3 trs. 15-17). Anne Mason as Luigia characterises well when she has to be contrite to her fiancée after previously flirting with Federico (Villars). The small role of Candida, loses its introductory Ecco miratela (CD 1 tr. 3) in the revision. In this role Bronwen Mills makes a good contribution in the ensembles and sings well in the duet that Donizetti composed for, but never used in either the 1824 original or in the revision. It was included in the 1987 performances as well as Giles Rico’s conflation in the 2007/08 Liverpool performances. In this recording it is included as an appendix (CD 3 trs. 18-19).
The recording has the soloists a little further back than the chorus and orchestra. David Parry conducts with a welcome vibrancy and feeling for melody and phrase, so important in operas of this primo ottocento bel canto period. The Opera Rara presentation and booklet are of their usual high standard. The reproduction of Jeremy Commons’s 1959 essay on the origins of the play, and another related opera that may have provided the basis of the 1824 libretto, is now of only marginal interest. However, his analysis of the music (p. 54 et seq) is more germane. As is usual with this company of enthusiasts, this Opera Rara recording does both versions of Donizetti’s opera full justice. I wonder if Sir Peter Moores, whose Foundation now supports so much of Opera Rara’s activities and the extant maintenance of their catalogue, and who attended the first night of the recent Liverpool performances of the new conflated version of this opera, had any thoughts about supporting a recording by the young singers involved. Regrettably, there is no Pesaro or Bad Wildbad to stimulate a Donizetti renaissance as is the case with Rossini; the Bergamo Festival being a poor cousin and despite Dynamic’s efforts with recordings (see review). I, for one, am grateful that Donizetti’s operas are the backbone of Opera Rara’s catalogue, whose scholarship and general standards are as high as on this recording and whose efforts, despite the occasional caveat, are always deserving of praise and recommendation.
Robert J Farr


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