Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Parisina - Tragic melodrama in three acts (1833)
Azzo, Duke of Ferrara - Dario Solari (baritone); Parisina, his wife - Carmen Giannattasio (soprano); Ugo, who is discovered to be her stepson - José Bros (tenor); Ernesto, Azzo’s minister - Nicola Ulivieri (bass); Imelda, Parisina’s lady in waiting - Ann Taylor (mezzo)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Parry
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, December 2008
OPERA RARA. ORC40 [3 CDs: 77.27 + 62.04 + 33.47]

The year 1833 was even more hectic than usual for Donizetti. 2 January saw the premiere of Il furioso in Rome. After this the composer hurried to Florence with the intention of starting work on Parisina the first of two operas he had promised the impresario Lanari. The year would also see the premieres of his Torquato Tasso in Rome and Lucrezia Borgia at La Scala. But Donizetti’s best intentions with regard to starting work on Parisina were thwarted by his librettist, Felice Romani. He had taken on too much work and consequently was unable to deliver the promised verses by the required date. The same was the situation facing the physically fragile Bellini as he awaited the libretto for Beatrice di Tenda in Venice. The outcome broke their personal friendship and professional relationship, the composer referring to the librettist as The God of Sloth. That was a bit harsh. Romani’s problem was over-commitment. Like the composers of the day it was necessary to work at pace and take on any offered contracts to keep body and soul in reasonably good shape. Whilst Parisina was premiered in Florence on 17 March 1833, Beatrice was premiered in Venice the previous day!

Donizetti’s Parisina is based on Byron’s poem of same name, the story having some similarities with Verdi’s Don Carlos. It concerns the thwarted love of the young Parisina and the youthful Ugo. Despite that ardent love she becomes the second wife of Azzo, Duke of Ferrara, as the reward for the latter’s rescuing her father’s territories from the Ghibellines. Despite this match the two maintain their love. Azzo, whose first marriage was deeply unhappy, is suspicious of Parisina and watches her closely as she glows with pleasure at Ugo’s success in the tournament celebrating the marriage. Azzo tells his minister Ernesto, who brought up Ugo, to banish him from the castle. The order is not fulfilled and Azzo later finds Ugo in the presence of Parisina.

Ever more suspicious of Parisina, Azzo watches her as she sleeps and hears her murmuring Ugo’s name. In fury he tells what he has heard and forces her to confess. She pleads for death, which he spurns. Meanwhile Ugo returns to the palace in the hope of seeing Parisina and is rebuked by Ernesto before armed guards arrest him. Parisina and Ugo are brought before Azzo in chains. Parisina pleads that they are in love only in thought not deed. As they are led away Ernesto tells Azzo that if he has Ugo executed he would be committing the horrendous crime of killing his own son, revealing he is the child of Azzo’s repudiated first wife.

In the short final act Parisina learns, from the chorus lament for the dead, that Ugo has been executed. In a dramatic double aria and cabaletta she dies in paroxysms of grief.

Parisina was the first opera Donizetti wrote for the impresario Lanari’s touring company at his Florentine headquarters. The singers for the primo were to be an important influence on his writing. The eponymous role was to involve a soprano reputed to be a tragic singing actress without an extended top to her vocal range. The tenor scheduled for Ugo was in some ways the opposite and reputed to be the first tenor to sing high C from the chest. Rossini likened the sound to that of the squawk of a capon about to have its throat cut! In view of the original soprano’s skills I was somewhat surprised at Opera Rara’s original choice of Patricia Ciofi in the title role. In the event she withdrew and was replaced by the warmer vibrant tones of Carmen Giannattasio; the role seems to me to fit her like a glove. Certainly hers is the outstanding performance among the quartet of leading soloists in this issue. She has the capacity to convey pathos, love, fear and desperation in her vocal expression. These skills are evident in the first act as Parisina, whilst glad for her father worries about her own destiny (CD1 tr.11). This can also be heard in the following duet with Ugo (trs 13-14) and above all in the short act three tragic conclusion when, after hearing of Ugo’s fate at the hands of his father, she dies (CD3 trs.3-6). Yes, some consonants could be better, but her performance in this recording is of good standard and even if not matching Caballé on the pirate recording, is a significant achievement.

As Ugo, José Bros’s rather white tone does not bring the part to life in the same manner as his partner. He has to strain somewhat with the highest notes as the drama unfolds in his duet with his guardian Ernesto (CD2 tr.11). Nevertheless his plangent voice is welcome at other points. The role of Azzo, the baddy of the story, falls to the young Uruguayan baritone Dario Solari. His recent Germont in La Traviata for Welsh National Opera did not impress me. He failed to spark any electricity in Germont’s act two confrontation with Violetta and likewise in the second scene when he enters Flora’s party and berates his son for demeaning Violetta by throwing his gambling table winnings at her. I suggested, in my review, that this was may be lack of tonal weight and that perhaps, as yet, Donizetti was more likely to be his metier. His singing is certainly smooth, well tuned and easy on the ear, but he fails to lift the dramatic temperature and sound the real villain. In act two this is exactly what is required as Azzo first listens to Parisina breathing his name in her sleep and then forces her to admit her love for Ugo (CD2 trs.4-6). His singing needs more tonal bite. In the bass role of Ernesto, who has quite a lot to sing but no aria, Nicola Ulivieri is more successful in his vocal expression whilst also maintaining tonal beauty. In what little she gets to sing Ann Taylor as Parisina’s companion deserves note.

Musically, Parisina has little of the easy-on-the-ear melodic invention of Lucia di Lamermoor, composed two years later. It has, however, more dramatic cohesion and thrust than found in Lucrezia Borgia (see review) or Rosmondo d’Inghilterra (see review) that came between those works. It is more akin to Maria Stuarda (see review) from that period. More than anything, I am taken with the similarities between Parisina and Caterina Cornaro, the last of Donizetti’s works staged in his lifetime. There are similarities in dramatic emphasis over sung ornamentation, the involvement, dramatically and musically of the chorus, allied to the maturity of style in the orchestral writing. In this performance both are well realised in the contribution of the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and owe much to David Parry’s passionate conducting (see a review of a concert performance of Parisina by these forces). With Opera Rara already having recorded Linda di Chamonix and with two-thirds of Caterina Cornaro being composed immediately after, it may be no vain hope that Cornaro is in their minds for a future project. Certainly, devoted Donizettians, who are increasingly well served by recordings of Italian Festival performances, such as those mentioned above, as well as Opera Rara, would welcome a studio recording uninterrupted by applause and in good sound.

Parisina was a success at its premiere and quickly spread through Italy and Europe. It was the first Donizetti opera performed in America. It survived in Italy until the 1890s the title role attracting the great divas of each generation. It was performed in London and Paris in 1838 with the great so-called Puritani quartet of Giulia Grisi in the title role, the tenor Rubini whose stratospheric range accounts for the infamous high F in the last act of Bellini's I Puritani, along with the formidable Tamburini and Lablache. The cast in this issue might not match that quartet, but no other has done so since. The whole is, however, a very welcome addition to the Donizetti discography.

The issue comes in Opera Rara’s incomparable presentation including a complete libretto and English translation together with an introductory article, performance history and synopsis by the eminent Donizetti scholar, Jeremy Commons. It lacks only artist profiles for perfection.

Robert J Farr