Premiered at the Theater am Kärntnertor, Vienna in May 1842, this work comes in at around the sixty-second of what The New Grove Masters of Italian Opera
(Macmillan 1983) lists as sixty-six operas by Donizetti. Discounting student works Donizetti composed 61 operas, plus many radical revisions as were required by the exigencies of singers available at revivals, or the demands of particular theatre managements. This constitutes a prodigious output, exceeding even Rossini’s 39 operas in 19 years whilst lacking his distinguished predecessor’s speed of composition or gift of melodic invention. With Maria Stuarda
and Lucia di Lamermoor
, both premiered in 1835, Donizetti’s fame was secure. Two years later, during the composition of Roberto Devereux,
his son was stillborn. This was the third postpartum death his wife had suffered. She followed her son to the grave a few weeks later. His children’s deaths were probably related to the syphilis Donizetti was carrying. The tertiary stage of this disease reduced him to paralysis, insanity and death in 1848, at only 51 years of age, a mere five years after his last opera. During much of this time he was semi-paralysed.
The impact of his personal tragedies seems to have triggered a renewed impetus of creative energy. In the remaining five creative years he wrote 13 new operas ranging from comic to dramatic setting French as well as Italian librettos. Like Rossini before him he conquered Paris with his operas, simultaneously performed at four theatres in the city. His significant new works for Paris included La fille du régiment
, premiered at the Opéra-Comique on 11 February 1840, La Favorite
at the Opéra the following December and Don Pasquale
at the Théâtre Italien in January 1843. Unlike Rossini, Donizetti did not settle in Paris. He had gone there in hope of earning enough money to escape the hectic world of opera-houses, and like his great predecessor, to retire early. As his health started to decline he clung to his career. He was solicited to consider a post in Vienna as Kapellmeister to the Austrian Court. Captivated by Vienna, Linda di Chamounix
was premiered there on 18 May 1842 with Maria di Rohan
following in June 1843. His stay was interrupted by presenting Don Pasquale
in Paris in January of that year.
The story of Linda di Chamounix
, involving a country girl dallying in a kept situation whilst intent on safeguarding her virginity seems naďve in the extreme - hardly plausible in the present day. In Venice it appealed to the Empress, who presented Donizetti with a personal memento. She also presented him to the audience with the composer called seventeen times. In Paris, six months, later the reception was cooler. The audience was conversant with the French play on which the opera is based. It takes a somewhat more harsh and realistic view of the movement of young Savoyards to Paris to earn money.
Compositionally Linda di Chamounix
is a curious mixture. In it Donizetti returns to the semi-seria genre abandoned ten years earlier. It is a complex story with all the elements of bel canto
and including a musically complex overture, omitted here, a wonderful love duet and a mad scene for the heroine. Perhaps the most unusual feature is that the nasty would-be seducer of the chaste Linda is cast for a buffa bass, who also gets a brief patter aria! With its mad scene and fraught emotional duets in act two, Linda di Chamounix
is an ideal opera for a lyric coloratura soprano capable of a wide expressive range. In the role, Edita Gruberova has an appealing lightness and vocal flexibility allied to good legato, variety of tone and good expression. She has the ability to sound young and girlish without being tweety. In act one (DVD 1. CHs 2-26) her costume and make-up betray her age, in acts two and three (DVD 2 CHs. 2-18 and 20-35). This is distinctly less so with her opulent costume contributing in the former and stage lighting in the latter. As well as sounding appropriately innocent and young in act one, with a lovely trill in the well-known recitative and cavatina Ah! Tardai …O luce di quest anima
(CHs.11-12), the latter added for the Paris production, Gruberova’s singing delights the audience to the extent of her coming out of role and acknowledging the applause to each part of the house! Thankfully this deplorable practice seems generally less evident in current theatre performances and transmissions, including those that make it onto ‘film’. It is not repeated again here. Elsewhere Gruberova’s coloratura is secure and appealing in the extended mad scene where Linda loses her reason after her father accuses her of immorality. Her singing is expressive to go along with committed acting as she deflects the advances of the Marquis (DVD 2 CHs.4-8) and particularly so in the love duet with Deon van der Walt’s Visconte (DVD 2 CHs.9-13).
Van der Walt’s singing throughout is tasteful and expressive with just the right amount of edge to give the required dramatic impetus or ardent inflection. Add his Mozartian sensibility and good diction and one deprecates even more his sad loss to the operatic stage following his particularly tragic early death. This performance is a fitting memorial to a fine and sensitive tenor. In fact all the men in the cast play and sing their roles well. The tall figure of László Polgár, as Il Prefetto, is allied to good and varied vocal tone and sympathetic characterisation as fits the story. Armando Ariostin creates a sympathetic, then agonised and finally forgiving figure as Linda’s father, singing with security, as does Nadine Ascher as her mother. In the incongruous buffa role of the Marquis of Boisfleury Jacob Will sings well and looks particularly foppish with his extravagant clothes and hairstyles. The duet between him and Linda in act two (DVD 2 CHs. 4-8) shows his singing and acting ability particularly well. The travesti role of the young itinerant hurdy-gurdy player Pierotto, who returns the hallucinating Linda to her home and parents, is particularly well acted and sung by Cornelia Kallisch.
The sets for act one and three involve picture post-card scenes of snow-covered mountains and a descending glacier. Linda’s home is left a rather indeterminate image to the left of the stage. These two acts do not lend themselves to the 4:3 picture format particularly well; less so if the aspect is changed to 16:9 for television. Linda’s costume and that of her lover are particularly opulent in act two with the set of her apartment appropriately designed. The stage direction by Daniel Schmid is apt and all the better for being unobtrusive.
Under the baton of Adam Fischer, the orchestra of the Zürich Opera does justice to Donizetti’s creation. Uniquely in my experience of DVDs, each act is preceded by a synopsis; very helpful.
Robert J Farr