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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848) Rita- Deux Hommes et une Femme (1841)
Rita, strident and dominating proprietress of an inn – Katarina Karnéus (mezzo); Pepé, her wimp husband – Barry Banks (tenor); Gasparo, Rita’s first husband, thought drowned – Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, September 2012 OPERA RARA ORC50 [63.43]
With this recording of Donizetti’s opera Rita, Opera Rara celebrates its fiftieth complete opera recording. It is also their twenty-second of an opera by Donizetti. The vision of the founders of Opera Rara has greatly facilitated our knowledge of one of the most prolific and skilled of the great bel canto opera composers. He is now better known and understood than would otherwise have been the case. This recording marks another landmark being (Wagner excepted), to the best of my Mancunian knowledge, the first commercial opera recording the Hallé Orchestra have made and certainly the first under their Music Director, Sir Mark Elder, who is also Opera Rara’s Artistic Director.
This recording of Rita is based on the new critical edition published by Casa Ricordi in 2009 and which restores the spoken dialogue. The edition is derived from Donizetti’s complete autograph score together with a recently discovered manuscript libretto with autograph annotations. It restores the originally intended French spoken dialogue for the opera, but without the apocryphal additions that were introduced for its eventual premiere in 1860.
The usual Opera Rara informative booklet contains a full libretto and English translation as well as an extensive essay on the reconstruction of this critical edition. It also tells us that Rita was Donizetti’s only work to be premiered after his death; taking place at the Salle Favert of the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1860. This was twelve years after the composer’s early death, in a paralysed state, from the tertiary syphilis he had been carrying for a number of years. The work had been composed in a very short time whilst Donizetti was in Paris in 1841 waiting for a commission from La Scala to materialize. It didn’t, nor was the composer able to place Rita, written in French, at the Opéra Comique or, when translated into Italian, elsewhere. The unperformed score was found in Donizetti’s effects when he died in 1848.
The story is set in the eighteenth century and takes place at an inn on the road from Genoa to Turin. The inn belongs to Rita, the tyrannical and abusive wife of the timid Pepé. The couple’s lives are thrown into turmoil with the unexpected arrival of Gaspar, Rita's first husband. He was presumed drowned, whilst in reality, he had run away to Canada. Believing that Rita had died in a fire, he has returned to obtain her death certificate so that he can remarry. On the basis that Gaspar is Rita’s legitimate husband, Pepé sees this as an opportunity to be free from Rita's abuse. The two men agree to a game by which whoever wins has to remain with Rita. Both try to lose, but ultimately the winner is Gaspar. Yet Rita, who had suffered frequently from at the hands of Gaspar, refuses to return to be his wife. Gaspar, pretending he has lost the hand, induces Pepé to declare his love for Rita and his firm intention to remain as her husband. The crafty Gaspar, having achieved his purpose, takes his leave from the reconciled couple.
Rita is a comedy with tragedy-like overtones to which Sir Mark Elder brings his extensive operatic insight. This is evident in respect of his pacing and inflection of the moods and allows easy movement between aria, duet and dialogue. He achieves this whilst supporting his singers as only a conductor well versed in the challenges of the opera-pit can. All the trio of soloists acquit themselves well, particularly Katarina Karnéus and Christopher Maltman who each bring full-toned expressive singing to their roles and handle the dialogue in acceptable French. Likewise Barry Banks. I first heard him as a student at Manchester’s Royal Northern School of Music as Almaviva in Rossini’s Il Barbiere. The strength of casting was such that the alternate was Paul Nillon. In those days Banks’ bel canto tenor, with its easy upward extension was, as might be expected, more mellifluous than here. In between, I have heard him many times in the bel canto repertoire at some of the world’s best operatic addresses. As here, I have always enjoyed his capacity to inflect words and convey character. Nowadays, I detect a little nasality in his singing, not unusual in French tenors either, but still find pleasure in his capacity for characterisation.
In musical maturity, whilst not in the same class as Don Pasquale (1843), Rita is, as one might expect, more mature musically than Don Gregorio of 1826 despite the speed of its writing, a facet of composition in which Donizetti, like Rossini, excelled. Although of a significantly better quality of performance than that from Bergamo (review), like that issue it is a welcome addition to the catalogue of the composer’s works. Long may that expansion continue. Opera Rara are currently raising finance for a recording of Les Martyrs, another of Donizetti’s opera premiered in Paris (1840). Contributions from Donizetti enthusiasts will be welcomed and enable Opera Rara to bring yet another Donizetti opera before the public. It will have the advantage of up-to-date recording, as well as research as to editions, over the 1978 mono recording featuring Leyla Gencer (review).