All five of these opera recordings derive from live performances in Italy and were previously issued on Nuova Era
. Although I have listed these five operas as they are numbered in cardboard slip-cases in the box, it is more appropriate if I make my comments about each opera in their sequence of composition. The associated brief booklet with this collection is somewhat inconsistent in the presentation of otherwise adequate plot details.
After the success of Anna Bolena
, premiered at La Scala on 28 December 1830, Donizetti's position as one of Italy's leading opera composers alongside Rossini and Bellini was assured. Like his compatriots, he was to discover that such success and approbation did not guarantee that the works to follow would be similarly acclaimed, whatever their manifest musical merits. Between the premiere of Anna Bolena
and that of L'Elisir d'Amore
in May 1832, Donizetti composed five operas none of which was successful at the time, one not being staged until 1839! Frustrated by the censors in Naples always wanting happy endings, the composer broke his contract there, freeing himself to accept more frequent commissions elsewhere. He was approached to write an opera for the Canobbiana Theatre in Milan when the contracted composer withdrew. The poet Romani produced a libretto in a week and Donizetti composed the music in a little over two. It was L'Elisir d'Amore
. It was an overwhelming success and received an unprecedented thirty-one performances. More opera buffa than comic opera the light style of the melodic music superbly conveys the conflicting emotions of the participants. The work has always had a place in the repertoire both in Italy and other major operatic centres.
The recording of L'Elisir d'Amore
included here is from Parma in 1988 and features the North American tenor Chris Merritt as the lovelorn country boy Nemorino who yearns for Adina, a neighbouring landowner. His voice is rather over-sized to convey the simplicity of the role and manoeuvre around the elegant vocal writing and demands of Quanto e bella
(CD 5 tr.3). This is even more evident in the more famous romanza Una furtive lagrima
(CD 6 tr.11) with his excessively ardent phrasing often detracting from his tone when he sings softly. Adelina Scrabelli as Adina also has something of an over-engineered voice for the role and is rather effortful as she strives to lighten her tone and manoeuvre around the coloratura demands (CD 5 tr.8). The lively march that heralds the arrival of Belcore is nicely sprung whilst Angelo Romero is a little dry-toned if idiomatic in the role (CD 6 tr.5). The veteran Sesto Bruscantini announces his arrival in a typical well-pointed and expressive Udite, udite, o rustici
(CD 5 tr.9) encompassing the patter demands, as befits a veteran in the genre, before proceeding to con the gullible Nemorino (tr.11). Hubert Soudant conducts a routine performance that the audience enjoy. The sound has a pleasing forward clarity.
Between the successes of L'Elisir d'Amore,
and the greater one at the premiere of Lucia di Lamermoor
in Naples in September 1835, Donizetti composed no fewer than nine operas of which the best known are Lucrezia Borgia
(1833) and Maria Stuarda
(1834). Based on Walter Scott's earlier novel, Lucia di Lamermoor
it was written to a libretto by Cammarano - Donizetti's forty-seventh opera. To this day it remains the composer's most popular serious opera and is widely considered a foundation stone of Italian Romanticism with its constant flood of melody linking the evolving bleak story. The number of readily available recordings on audio and video are a testament to its continuing popularity. In this recording the eponymous soprano is rather too heavy and squeezes her notes whilst her Edgardo is of limited vocal grace. With the recording set too far back it is a performance that I shall not return to. Given that most potential purchasers will already own a superior performance it is a pity that another of the Nuova Era
recordings of a less frequently-recorded Donizetti opera was not included instead.
Following Lucia di Lamermoor
Donizetti was commissioned to compose three operas for Naples where he had previously become frustrated by the censor's interference and the constant demands for happy endings. Encouraged by Rossini he had dipped his toes into the operatic waters of Paris and been impressed by the superior musical standards of that city as well as the greater freedom of subject available to him. He fulfilled his contract at the San Carlo with L'assedio di Calais
in 1836, Roberto Devereux
) the following year and wrote Poliuto
in 1838. This story of Christian martyrdom in Roman times worried the censors. With the work complete Donizetti was told that the King, a deeply religious man, had personally forbidden its staging in Naples and Pia de' Tolomei
) was substituted in its place. The banning of Poliuto
was the final straw for Donizetti who left Naples for Paris in October 1838. In Paris he rewrote the recitatives of Poliuto
, divided act one in two and wrote a new finale all to a new libretto by Scribe. He also added arias, trios and the de rigueur
ballet. The new four-act version was premiered as Les Martyrs
at The Opéra on 10 March 1840 (Review
in its original form, was not performed until 1848.
I wondered about the provenance of this well cast recording of Poliuto
from Rome as the dates given indicate more than one recording session. It certainly derives from a live performance or performances, as there is applause from time to time. The recording has the voices more forward than I would expect from a staged performance and I wondered if it was from a concert performance(s). That being said the recording quality is not uniform and the sound varies between dryness and congestion.
Corneille's tragedy Polyeucte
about Christian martyrdom is more episodic in its structure than most contemporary bel canto
and unusually for the genre requires big voices. The tenor Nicola Martinucci, whilst not being well known on CD, was a regular at arena performances at Verona. His spinto tones were also much appreciated at Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera and other first division addresses. Although a little dry-toned and lacking some vocal elegance his interpretation is typically virile (CD 8 trs. 1-2). Elisabeth Connell is another singer who was able to encompass the spinto roles of the Italian repertoire as well as Wagner with great conductors in the best houses including La Scala and Covent Garden. She is in good voice and gives a typically committed and expressive interpretation (CD 7 trs. 4-5). As Severo, Renato Bruson, widely recognised as the leading Donizetti baritone of his generation, is at the height of his powers (CD 7 tr.7). The chorus of the Rome Opera is a further strength, the whole being welded together by Jan Latham-Koenig in the pit. With the absence from the catalogue of the concert performance involving Katia Riciarelli and Jose Carreras this recording is a welcome inclusion.
Whilst waiting for the ever-dilatory Scribe to complete the revision of Poliuto
for the new Les Martyrs
, Donizetti presented a French version of Lucia
) and also wrote La Fille du Régiment
, premiered at the Opéra Comique on 11 February 1840 (see review
). Although not immediately well received, by the beginning of the following year it had clocked up over fifty performances and in due course became popular all over France. By 1914 it had reached its thousandth performance at the Opéra Comique! After a translation into Italian as La Figlia del Reggimento
it travelled widely abroad reverting to the French for its American premiere. Decca recorded the role of Marie with Joan Sutherland reprising performances at Covent Garden. Both the performances and the recording contributed to the fame of her tenor partner, Luciano Pavarotti, as the King of the High Cs
to the aria Ah! mes amis
with its nine high Cs and which feature in this Italian version as Amici miei
(CD 1 tr.11).
The quality of this performance perhaps dictated the fact that it is the first featured in this collection. Inevitably, after Juan Diego Florez has done so much to popularise the work, in French, these past few years, listeners will want to listen particularly to William Matteuzzi as Tonio. I am pleased to report that, whilst not erasing memories of Florez in the role, they will not be disappointed. The high Cs ping out and his clear forward tenor carries plenty of expression and well as some vocal elegance (CD 1 trs. 12-15). His Maria exhibits similar vocal strengths with full-toned coloratura singing as well as expressive vocal acting (CD 1 trs. 7 and 9). If Enzo Dara as Sulpizio carries off the prizes for consummate vocal acting, alongside full toned strength, it should come as no surprise; he was after all the buffo of his day and widely admired. Bruno Campanella conducts the whole in admirable style. The sound is good overall despite occasional movement away from the microphones. Applause is warm and phased out so as not to be too prolonged.
Firmly successful in Paris, Donizetti did return to Italy, but rather than face the peccadilloes of the King of Naples he wrote operas for Rome and La Scala, Milan, where the impresario, Merelli, had similar duties at the Kärntnertor Theatre in Vienna. He commissioned Donizetti to write an opera for that theatre and Linda di Chamounix
was a huge success at its premiere there on 19 May 1842. Afterwards the composer conducted acclaimed performances of Rossini's Stabat Mater
before returning to Paris to compose and present Don Pasquale
to considerable acclaim in January 1843. With further commissions for Vienna and Paris secured, the operatic world was at his feet and without his having to compose at the frenetic pace of previous years. But there was a time bomb ticking away in his body as the syphilis, contracted years before, moved towards its inevitable conclusion.
Maria di Rohan
was Donizetti's chosen subject for his second opera for the Kärntnertor Theatre in Vienna where it was premiered in June 1843 in the presence of the Austrian imperial family and received enthusiastically with what the composer described as a sea of applause
. The story is set in Paris during the reign of Louis XIII. Maria is secretly married to the Duke of Chevreuse. When her husband kills the nephew of the powerful Cardinal Richelieu she begs an ex-lover, the Count of Chalais, to intercede for him. Old flames are rekindled and her husband challenges Chalais to a duel. Rather than kill Maria's husband he turns the pistol on himself. Maria asks her husband to kill her. Instead he condemns her to a life of disgrace.
After decades of neglect Maria di Rohan
was revived in the second half of the twentieth century with performances in Europe and America, often involving the renowned singing actress Renata Scotto. Regrettably, she does not feature on this recording made at the Festival della Valle d'Itria
in the ancient town of Martina Franca at the heel of Italy where performances take place in the open air in the courtyard of the Ducal Palace. The acoustic of recordings made there is often influenced by the presence of reflections, or otherwise, from the scenery flats in use. It seems to my ears that this is a factor in the recorded quality and in the response of the singers in this performance where they often sound strained. The tenor, Giuseppe Morini, is the same as in the recording of Lucia di Lamermoor
in this collection, and is particularly guilty in this respect (CD 9 trs. 3). As Maria, Marianna Nicolesco sings strongly but with variable diction whilst Paolo Coni as Chevreuse maintains his strong tone and adds good characterisation. But it is the music itself that distinguishes Maria di Rohan
from most of the composer's previous works.
The added thrust of the orchestration has been attributed to the Donizetti's presence at the premiere of Verdi's Nabucco
. Certainly its forward musical momentum marked a break from the earlier bel canto
tradition. As I indicate above, Donizetti seemed to have made an initial move from that tradition with his Poliuto.
What he seems able to do in Maria di Rohan
is better to marry the old and the new. This was his last Romantic melodrama, a genre that he did so much to develop and where, perhaps, it achieves its zenith in the last act (CD 10 trs.4-8).
It was during the months Donizetti spent in Vienna in 1843 that his health began its accelerating decline. He managed to return to Paris where he presented his last opera Dom Sébastien
on 13 November 1843, with Maria di Rohan
being performed at the Théâtre Italien the following evening. He completed his earlier efforts at Caterina Cornaro
which was presented in Naples in the following January. It has many dramatic and musical similarities with Maria di Rohan
but was not an immediate success. The composer continued conducting in Vienna until the spring of 1845 when his health collapsed and he spent the last two years of his life in a near comatose state in what used to be medically described as general paralysis of the insane, it being the inevitable tertiary stage of syphilis until the discovery of antibiotics.
Robert J Farr