Musical reconstructions are fraught with controversy. The modern composer or editor will invariably stand accused of perpetrating either a parody or a stylistic non sequitur. While I can understand wanting to avoid the former, the second route of grafting a new style onto the old is always risky. I am thinking of Schnittke’s cadenzas for Beethoven’s violin concerto or the completion of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony; some find these enterprises unsatisfactory or even risible, while others applaud the inventiveness. In the end, it’s full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes - and the listener will decide.
Donizetti began “Le duc d’Albe” in 1838, intending it to be performed in Paris as a true Grand Opera. It was never completed for reasons which remain obscure. The project probably foundered on diva Rosine Stolz’s flat refusal to sing a part she found uncongenial. She also felt that it was too one-dimensional, in that apart from her love for Henri, Hélène is fixated throughout upon revenging her father; it thus remained unperformed.
The composer virtually finished the first two acts and the vocal lines for the third and fourth acts were 85% intact. An orchestration of these by Donizetti’s one-time pupil Matteo Salvi, with the help of other composers including Ponchielli, enabled a first performance in 1882 of the Italian translation as “Il duca d’Alba”. There have since been various revivals of this Italian version and as such it remains the best known of Donizetti’s unfinished work. Despite its incompletion, it contains music written when the composer was in the plenitude of his powers, just after “Poliuto”. This was when he was working on “L’ange de Nisida”, whose music was eventually reworked into “La favorite”, and shortly before “La fille du régiment”.
Eugene Scribe, the senior of the two original librettists - the other being Charles Duveyrier - resourcefully recycled the text with names and places changed for Verdi. He proceeded to set in 1855 as “Les vêpres siciliennes”, now more often performed in the Italian version, “I vespri siciliani”. The essentials of the tragic plot - divided loyalties by reason of love, birth and patriotism - remain.
There was no performance of any completion in French before this production, given in Antwerp and Ghent during May and June 2012. This Dynamics issue is a live recording of the performance on 11 May 2012 at Ghent. Aviel Cahn, the artistic director of the Vlaamse Opera, thought that given the tensions in modern Belgium, the plot would have resonance for a modern Belgian audience. After all, it centres upon nationalistic resentment of oppression by those who speak another tongue. Thus contemporary Italian composer Giorgio Battistelli was commissioned to write new music and prepare a completed version. There is a mild irony in the fact that it is here performed by a Dutch-speaking company in the original French, the language spoken by the Walloon community with whom the Flemish are sometimes in conflict.
Battistelli has deliberately composed the new material in his own idiom, so that his work is instantly recognisable and distinguishable from that of Donizetti. His mission was, in his own words, “not to repair but to re-write”. He has written a new scene and an aria for the Duke which opens the third act and a new finale to Act IV which includes a further aria for the Duke set to words extant in Scribe’s libretto. He follows Donizetti’s suggestions by borrowing for the former the melody of an aria from “Il paria” for the Act III aria and by adapting the arioso for the dying Ghino in “Pia di Tolomei” for Henri’s death. The Act III recitatives are Battistelli’s own and thus considerably more dissonant. His finale represents a startling departure from Donizetti’s sound-world. Obviously these additions are much more radical than any mere orchestration and for some listeners they will inevitably jar, yet I cannot say they troubled me unduly, once I had accepted the premise of Battistelli’s contributions. He misses a trick in the finale, however, by not exploiting the contrast Donizetti evidently intended and which is clearly indicated by the libretto, between the Duke’s despair at his son’s death and the crowd’s elation at his departure; his music is uniformly doleful and grief-laden.
The music is not perhaps all memorable or vintage Donizetti but there are inevitably some lovely things, especially the duets between Henri and the Duke concluding Act I and between the lovers in Act II. There’s also the succession of three arias and recitatives for the Duke opening Act III, including the one provided by Battistelli. When he abandoned “Le duc d’Albe”, the composer recycled the best aria, “Ange si pur” the following year in “La favorite”. It is now much better known in its Italian guise, “Spirto gentil” and is here included as “Ange des cieux”. A further irony is that the most famous aria in the 1882 Italian version, “Angelo casto e bel”, is not by Donizetti at all, but by Salvi to replace the gap in the music left by the excision of “Spirto gentil”.
The singers are more than adequate: Swiss soprano Rachel Harnisch has a big, rounded tone with considerable power up top. She makes much of her arias, singing expressively and and with confidence. Romanian George - or Georges according to the credits on this disc - Petean sings in good French in a light, attractive baritone. He has a good upper extension, a sustained legato and a voice reminiscent of his compatriot Alexandru Agache. He convinces us of his devotion to his estranged son, singing movingly. Tenor Ismael Jordi’s French is passable, even if he has the usual Spanish difficulty with the “on” sound as in “mon”, and he sings most musically, even if his voice is somewhat hard. He produces some impressive diminuendos and certainly does not disgrace himself in his big aria.
The orchestra at times sounds a little scrawny and has some intonation problems, especially in the overture. The tenors in the chorus sound strained, particularly in “Les derniers feux” in Act II. However, by and large this is a fine provincial performance expertly conducted by Paulo Carignani.
The recording quality is excellent and there is a minimum of audience noise apart from applause. A synopsis in three languages is provided but no libretto; apparently this can be downloaded from the Dynamic label website. Given that this is the only version available in the original French and has new music not found elsewhere, it cannot reasonably be compared with any of the previous recordings of the Italian version, all live but for one radio broadcast and mostly made some time ago. As such, this is as close as you will come to what Donizetti originally had in mind, allowing for Battistelli’s additions and the incongruity of his finale.
I acknowledge my indebtedness to the Donizetti Society Past Productions report on their website for some of the information here regarding Giorgio Battistelli’s borrowings and sources.