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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Three comic operas: Le convenienze teatrali; L’Elisir d’amore; Don Pasquale
BELAIR CLASSICS BAC 607 [3 DVDs: 113:00 + 133:00 + 127:00]

Donizetti was one of six children, two of whom had musical skills and aspirations. After the family moved to Bergamo, now home to the annual Donizetti Festival, the young Gaetano studied at the local conservatoire. There he was fortunate to meet, be influenced and helped in his career as a composer, by Johann Mayr who had distinguished credentials in the operatic field. It was whilst a student under Mayr’s influence that Donizetti composed his first opera, albeit that it was not staged until 1960. It was with his fifth operatic composition, Zoraida di Granata (see review), premiered in Rome in January 1822, that he first impressed. Other works followed at frequent intervals and with varying success. This was until he really hit the big-time with Anna Bolena in the 1830 Milan season mounted by the Duke of Litta and two rich associates. It was his thirty-first opera. This set off a golden period for Donizetti that lasted until his premature withdrawal from composition after his sixty-seventh or so opera when the effects of tertiary syphilis made him singularly ill-tempered before reducing him to a near vegetative state and an early death.

In the post-1830 period, along with the romantic tragedies, his most popular staged work was the comic opera L’Elisir d’Amore, premiered in 1832. Both before, and after that success he composed several comic or buffa operas, or even those termed opera giocoso, which in a broad definition could be termed comic. In this bargain-priced collection, the second most famous of his buffa works, Don Pasquale (1843), is joined by Le convenienze teatrali a largely unknown two act farsa premiered in 1827. In sequence of composition I give further details of the works and the performances involved.

1. Le convenienze teatrali (Final version, 1831) [113:00]
Daria - Jessica Pratt; Procolo - Simon Bailey; Biscroma Strappaviscere - Christian Senn; Agata - Vincenzo Taormina; Luigia - Aurora Tirotta; Guglielmo - Leonardo Cortellazzi; Pippetto - Asude Karayavuz; Cesare Salzapariglia - Chae Jun Lim; Impresario - Jong Min Park; Stage Manager - Eugeniy Stanimirov; Ispettore - Riccardo Massi
Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia del Teatro alla Scala/Marco Guidarini
Stage director: Antonio Albanese
Set designer: Leila Fteita
Costume designer: Elisabetta Gabbioneta
rec. Teatro alla Scala, Milan, October 2009
HD. Picture Format, 16:9
Sound formats, PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1,
Booklet notes: English, German, French
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish
Available separately as BAC063

The title refers to the convenienze, which were the rules relating to the ranking of singers (primo, secondo, comprimario) in 19th-century Italian opera, and the number of scenes and arias that they were entitled to expect. The action takes place in a theatre where rehearsals turn crazy in the rich tradition of opera buffa. It includes a woman played and sung by a bass. The opera was originally a one-act farsa based on Le convenienze teatrali and premiered at the small Teatro Nuovo, Naples, on 21 November 1827. Donizetti revised it and added recitatives and material for this final version premiered at the Teatro alla Cannobiana, Milan on 20 April 1831.

In brief, the story concerns a regional operatic troupe rehearsing a new work. Numerous obstacles occur with the prima donna repeatedly making impossible demands. Add to this a Russian tenor unable to master either the lyrics or the melodies. In the midst of much quarrelling, various singers threaten to walk out. The situation turns even worse with the arrival of Mamma Agatha, sung by a male bass. She is the mother of one of the female performers and insists on a solo for her daughter. She even issues detailed demands on the musical arrangement of the aria. When the star tenor refuses to go on, he is replaced by the prima donna’s agent. Finally, a loss of financing almost brings the production to a halt. In the end, all problems are solved and the show goes on.

This recording involves students of the Teatro alla Scala Academy. Most major opera houses now run such training academies, which give opportunity to promising young and trained singers to get nearer the professional action. At La Scala, the staging of the production is included in the official season in the theatre proper. In this case, in October 2009, it was the first time that Donizetti’s comic take on the plot had been seen at Italy’s most prestigious operatic address. The production is given in period costume and with La Scala’s full facilities.

Given the nature of the occasion, it would be invidious of me to make detailed comments about individual singers. Clearly some are more a work-in-progress than fully prepared to embark on a professional career. Having said that, observers of the international operatic scene will recognize some names that have already hit high-spots in different venues. In one case, Jessica Pratt, a singer has appeared on several commercial DVDs, including those from the prestigious Rossini Festival at Pesaro. I heard her at Garsington in 2010 at the British premiere of Rossini’s Armida, first seen at Naples in 1817 (see review). An Australian, she also illustrates the international nature of the participants and also illustrates the spread of European opera into the Far East.

Marco Guidarini directs the Orchestra of the Accademia del Teatro alla Scala whilst Italian actor, director and writer Antonio Albanese makes his debut as opera director. The booklet includes a track-list and a synopsis in English, French and German.

2. L’Elisir d’amore - Comic opera in two acts (1832) [133:00]
Adina, a feisty young business woman of the town – Heidi Grant-Murphy (soprano); Nemorino, a gauche young country boy infatuated by her – Paul Groves (tenor); Sergeant Belcore, a worldly army sergeant who brings his platoon into the town – Laurent Naouri (baritone); Doctor Dulcamara, a quack doctor who arrives selling a cure-all potion – Ambrogio Maestri (baritone); Giannetta, Alesandra Zamojojska (soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Paris Opera/Edward Gardner
Stage Director and Costume designer: Laurent Pelly
Set designer: Chantal Thomas
Video Director: Denis Caiozzi
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1. DTS 5.1
Filmed in HD. Picture Format, 16:9
rec. Paris, June 2006
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
Synopsis: English, French, German
Available separately as BAC040

L’Elisir d’Amore was composed in that highly successful and creative period between Anna Bolena in 1830 and Lucia di Lammermoor in 1835. Many of the works of that period, and those that followed, are rapidly coming back into fashion, particularly the bel canto dramas such as Lucrezia Borgia (1833), Maria Stuarda (1835) and Roberto Devereux (1837). With worldwide staging, L’Elisir d’Amore has never had to wait for revival or rediscovery — the work has always had a place in the repertoire both in Italy and in other major operatic centres. Yet its composition was completed in haste. Frustrated by the censors in Naples always wanting happy endings, the composer broke his contract with the theatre 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, Donizetti is said to have composed the music in little over two. Certainly, as Ashbrook states (Donizetti and his Operas, CUP, 1982) “Donizetti for the first time demonstrated his full mastery of the buffa form”. The premiere was an overwhelming success and went on to receive an unprecedented 31 performances in the season. The work is more opera buffa than comic opera, whilst the style of the melodic music superbly conveys the conflicting emotions of the participants. It even inspired Richard Wagner to produce a piano score of the work in 1840.

This modern dress and staged production updates the action to the second half of the twentieth century. Act I opens with the young women perched or reclining on a tiered haystack. Adina in a flower-patterned cotton dress is under a parasol whilst Nemorino looks longingly at her from close by. He climbs nearer to her as he sings how lovely she is and wishes he inspired some reciprocal affection (Ch. 3). In this first aria, tenor Paul Groves gives pleasing indications of his lyric tonal quality along with elegant phrasing allied to good diction. All these pervade his interpretation. Throughout he shows good acting ability as well as including cartwheels, not something often seen in tenors. His, along with that of the irrepressible Ambrogio Maestri as Doctor Dulcamara, is the major acted strength of this performance which includes beautifully poignant and elegant singing of Una furtiva lagrima (Ch.28).

When Sergeant Belcore arrives with his troop of soldiers (Ch.5), very elegantly attired, it is no wonder Norina is swept off her feet and agrees to marry him that same day. Sung by American Heidi Grant-Murphy with warm womanly tones and acted well, she fails in the lighter coloratura passages to portray Adina’s girlish flirtatiousness.

In the second scene, as bicycles and mopeds pass by to a backdrop of pylons (Ch.8), a lorry turns up. The villagers gather to see who is arriving; it is no prince but the self-titled Doctor Dulcamara selling his potion to cure all ills. The villagers creep back, a dog runs across the stage (Ch.9) as sleek-haired Ambrogio Maestri’s assistants set up his stall, complete with neon pulsating strip lights. No wonder country boy Nemorino believes the patter of the potion on offer. He buys a bottle (Ch.11) and goes off happily believing that tomorrow Adina will love him. It’s a very effective visual and staged scene.

However, it turns out that the wedding will take place before the tomorrow Nemorino is banking on. In act two (Ch.18) the set reverts to haystacks with the addition of a stage for the wedding. With Heidi Grant-Murphy’s Adina worried that Nemorino is not around, the story unfolds. Her acting, along with that of Maestri, and maestro Edward Gardner on the rostrum, keeps up the pace. In the patter aria Maestri is a consummate master. As a true baritone, there are moments when I would have preferred the more refulgent tones of a bass-baritone as is often the case however his interpretation of the words and realisation of the role are as good as it gets. His fellow baritone, Laurent Naouri as Belcore has well covered tone with an odd dry patch. He is not a natural actor and comes over rather stiffly from time to time. Allowing for this he manages to convey the role of arrogant seducer, popular wherever his troop have to go and quite willing to forego Adina; after all, there are plenty more at their next stop.

As a generality I am not a fan of updated staging. I must admit though that stage director Laurent Pelly and set designer Chantal Thomas make their vision work. I enjoyed watching this production and will return to it.

There is a track listing as well as an essay in English, French and German all in an excellently illustrated booklet.

3. Don Pasquale - Comic opera in three acts (1843) [127:00]
Don Pasquale, an elderly, well-off bachelor - Simone Alaimo (buffo bass); Ernesto, ardent but impecunious suitor of Norina – Norman Shankle (tenor); Norina, an impulsive, but sensitive, young widow - Patrizia Ciofi (soprano); Doctor Malatesta, extremely resourceful and jocular doctor. Friend of Pasquale and closer friend of Ernesto – Marzio Giossi (baritone)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Grand Theatre, Geneva/Evelino Pido
rec. May 2007
Stage Director: Stefano Vizioli
Costumes and set designer: Francis O'Connor?
Video Director: Don Kent
Sound Formats: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1.
Picture Format, 16:9. HD
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish
Notes and synopsis: English, German, French
Available separately as BAC033

Don Pasquale is among the last of Donizetti’s sixty-six or so completed operatic compositions and his last comic work, if it can truly be called that. Like Verdi’s Falstaff, there is more than a touch of harshness in the story: in this case, a foolish old man with romantic aspirations for a young wife getting his comeuppance.

At the age of forty-five Donizetti had deserted Naples with its restrictive censorship. The final straw had been the last minute banning in 1838 by the King personally, a deeply religious man, of his opera Poliuto. This was not the composer’s first run-in with the Naples censors. Heartily sick of it he left the city for Paris taking his new opera with him, revising it in French as Les Martyrs. In Paris Donizetti also presented a simplified French version of his highly successful Lucia de Lammermoor at the Théâtre de Renaissance (review) and was also commissioned to write a work for the Opéra Comique and one for the Paris Opéra itself. The success of these two works, La Fille du regiment and La Favorite, both premiered in 1840, firmly established Donizetti in Paris with its high orchestral and stage standards as well as appealing levels of remuneration for composers.

Returning to Paris after the successful premiere of Linda di Chamounix in Vienna in May 1842 (review), Donizetti was commissioned to write a comic opera for the Théâtre Italien. He had some trouble with competition between the singers and in the end boasted that he composed the new work, Don Pasquale, in a mere eleven days. The pace and fleet felicity of the music, and its melodic invention, reflects this. The opera was a resounding success and within months was produced all over Europe. It reached America in January 1845. If not quite the equal of his L’Elisir d’Amore, or Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, it is one of the three most popular Italian comic operas.

Like L’Elisir d’Amore in this collection, the staging is updated, in this case to the present day. Moreover, the locations specified in the libretto are also changed so that the opera’s opening scene is a café outside a tabac, with elegantly dressed waiters smoking, rather than in Pasquale’s home. In fact it was not long before I began to find the intrusion of the waiter into the action irksome. That annoyance was brief as the scene 1 meeting between Pasquale and Malatesta unfolded. I was somewhat bowled over by Simone Alaimo’s singing and acting.

The scene quickly passes to Malatesta briefing Norina and part of the gimmicky set is revealed by a quick photogenic change of scene. This is a feature of the production that is repeated and I presume was a contribution to its raison d’être. Apart from Alaimo’s masterful interpretation, much of the strength here comes from Patrizia Ciofi. Not as light-toned as in her earlier years, she is a good actress and still has an appropriate lightness of vocal tone and expression. This is very apt to the role of the young widow who is set up to put an amorous old codger in his place - a quiet seat by his fireside. As Ernesto, the impecunious young man Norina really hopes to marry, the tenor Norman Shankle sings with a slightly husky tone whilst shaping the phrases and giving meaningful expression to the words (CH.40). His honeyed mezza voce is a delight but his acting is mechanical. I found little virtue in Marzio Giossi’s Doctor Malatesta. His tone has dry patches and his acted interpretation is mediocre.

The mise en scène might appeal to some, gimmicks seem to predominate over atmosphere and even extend to art deco modernism in act 3. Musically there is little to fault in Evelino Pido’s nicely paced and shaped interpretation.

As with all three of the discs in this Bel Air collection the booklet is illustrated by superb colour photographs as well as having a track-listing but there are no timings.

Robert J Farr