Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848) La Favorite - Grand Opera in four acts (1840) [184:00]
Léonor de Guzmán – Kate Aldrich (mezzo); Fernand – Yijie Shie (tenor); Alphonse XI – Ludovic Tézier (baritone); Balthazar – Giovanni Furlanetto (bass); Inès – Marie-Bénédicte Souquet (soprano); Don Gaspar – Alain Gabriel (tenor)
Toulouse Capitole Chorus and Orchestra/Antonello Allemandi
Vincent Boussard (stage director)
Vincent Lemaire (set design)
Christian Lacroix (costume design)
Guido Levi (lighting design)
rec. Theátre du Capitole, Toulouse, 2014
Subtitles: English, French, German, Japanese, Korean
All regions DVD; 16:9; Audio Dolby digital & dts Digital Surround OPUS ARTE OA1166D DVD [184:00]
La Favorite was written in a considerable hurry by Donizetti for the Paris Opéra. The house needed a new opera to fill the gap left by Meyerbeer’s delays in completing Le Prophète. It was arranged for piano solo and for two violins by Richard Wagner and continued to be performed in France beyond the nineteenth century. Indeed, a “complete” recording was made there in 1912. However, for most of the twentieth century it was better known and performed in its Italian version as La Favorita. This disc offers the original version, albeit omitting the ballet music in Act Two.
The plot concerns the love of Fernand, a Novice at the Monastery of St James of Compostela in Castile, for Léonor. He, apparently alone among the cast, does not realise that she is the Mistress (La Favorite) of Alphonse, the King of Castile. Once this unlikely situation is accepted the action is believable, and the characters are sympathetic and well rounded. Musically, despite its hurried composition partly reusing earlier material, this is one of Donizetti’s best structured and most imaginative works. Fortunately the cast here are well chosen to show it - and them - to best advantage. Yijie Shie in particular has a bright and flexible voice with good reserves of power where needed, clear enunciation, and an ability to phrase imaginatively. Kate Aldrich is a powerful and moving presence in the title role, again singing with real imagination. Ludovic Tézier tends at times to sing with more generalised volume but fortunately he too shows that he is capable of reducing the volume and phrasing with real care for much of the time. Antonello Allemandi conducts with flexibility but also with energy. All in all musically this is an outstandingly good performance.
The production is not as satisfactory although it seldom actually reduces enjoyment. It would seem that its main concern is with the changing relationships between the four main characters. These are well captured in a non-naturalistic manner, although whilst it is certainly good to avoid making singers face the back of the stage or sing from unlikely positions it is a pity that for so much of the time they are made simply to face the audience. This applies especially to the chorus. Fortunately in the big ensembles that end the Second and Third Acts the director avoids distraction and allows the music to make its point. The set consists of a row of arches of different sizes which are placed in different positions and with different backgrounds. Mirrors on each side probably made more sense in the theatre. Where characters can occasionally be seen in reflection as well as directly their presence is merely confusing. Costumes are vaguely medieval, if with no specific connection with 1340, the year in which the opera is set. Fernand is given an illuminated suitcase which he stands alongside for much of the opera. Hugo Shirley’s note describes this as suggesting some kind of refugee status. To my eyes it made Fernand look more like Paddington Bear. Overall however even if the production did little to enhance the excellent musical performance it did not detract from it.
Even in these days when new Donizetti recordings emerge with delightful frequency a performance of this quality of an opera still too rarely performed is an important event. Use of the original French is a bonus as are the straightforward filming and the absence of music over the preliminary titles. John Sheppard