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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
La Favorite - Opera in four acts (1840)
Fernand, a novice monk in love with Léonor – Yijie Shi (tenor); Alphonse XI, King of Castille – Ludovic Tézier (baritone); Léonor de Guzmán, mistress of the King – Kate Aldrich (mezzo); Balthazar, abbot of the monastery – Giovanni Furlanetto (bass); Inès - Marie-Bénédicte Souquet (soprano); Gaspar - Alain Gabriel (baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Capitole Theatre Toulouse/Antonello Allemandi
Stage Director: Vincent Boussard; Set design: Vincent Lemaire; Costume design: Christian Lacroix
TV and Video Director: Olivier Simonnet
rec. 14, 16 Feb 2014
Audio formats: LPCM 24 bit stereo. dts HD Master Audio
Picture format: 1080 HD. Aspect ratio 16:9.
Introductory note and act synopsis: English, German, French
Subtitles: English, German, French (original language), Italian, Korean, Japanese
OPUS ARTE Blu-ray OABD7165D [132:00 + 38:00 (bonus)]

Donizetti went to Paris at Rossini’s invitation in 1835 to present his opera Marino Faliero at the Théâtre Italien where his great predecessor was intendant. This visit also introduced him to the ‘Grand Opera’ style of Meyerbeer and Halévy at The Opéra, the Académie Impériale de Musique, Paris. He also discovered, as Rossini and other Italian predecessors had done before him, the significantly higher musical and theatrical standards that existed in Paris compared with their own country. That applied even in Naples with its professional orchestra and in Milan. Also appealing to a composer, who often had to write and present three or four new works each year to maintain a decent living, was the superior financial remuneration available in Paris as well as the safeguarding of performance rights.

Donizetti’s Marino Faliero was premiered on 12 March 1835 and followed Bellini’s I Puritani that rather overshadowed Donizetti’s creation. Both operas featured four of the greatest singers of the day in Giulia Grisi, Giovanna Battista Rubini, Antonio Tamburini and Luigi Lablache. With Marino Faliero neither a failure nor a raging success in Paris, Donizetti returned to Italy and presented Lucia di Lammermoor in Naples on 26 September. This was a huge and immediate success. To this day it remains the composer’s most popular opera and is widely considered a foundation-stone of Italian romanticism. With the premature death of Bellini in the same month as Lucia’s premiere, and Rossini’s retirement from operatic composition, Donizetti was elevated to a pre-eminent position among his contemporaries. Given this status his return to Paris was inevitable and in 1838 he presented a French version Lucia at the Théâtre de Renaissance. He followed this with three operas in Paris in 1840: La Fille du Régiment at the Opéra Comique (11 February), Les Martyrs (10 April) and La Favorite on 2 December - both the latter at The Opéra. In his contemporaneous writings, Berlioz was caustic about what he considered the domination of the Paris theatres by the Italian.

La Favorite started off as L’ange de Nisida and was scheduled for performance at the Théâtre de Renaissance. However, when that theatre went bankrupt, Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz’s libretto was expanded by Scribe with Donizetti concluding act two with a ballet, de rigueur at The Opéra, but omitted in this Toulouse performance. To the new act four he added the lovely tenor aria for Fernand, Ange si pur (CH.34) known to all tenors of the Italian school as Spirto Gentil. When the opera was first performed in Italy, in translation, it was titled Leonora di Guzman relating to the title of the origin of the earlier libretto. It became known by its Italian title of La favorita when given at La Scala in 1843. Over the next seventy years over seven hundred performances of the work were given at the Paris Opéra.

The story is set in fourteenth century Spain. Fernand, a young novice monk, refuses to take his vows as he is in love with a young woman who comes to the church to pray and who returns his love. He considers himself her social inferior and volunteers to fight in the army and returns an acclaimed hero. The King offers him any reward and he asks for her hand. She is in fact Léonor de Guzman, the King's mistress who confesses her shame. Bereft, Fernand returns to the monastery where the woman joins him to seek his forgiveness and dies.

La Favorite, as can be heard on the recently issued CD of Les Martyrs (review) not only marks Donizetti’s command of the Grand Opera style demanded by the Paris Opéra, but also a marrying of that style with bel canto. The latter had been the hallmark of much of the composer’s previous work in Italy. La Favorite also marks a significant move towards romanticism, a quality that is also present in the operas he composed later for the Vienna Kärntnertor theatre, Linda di Chamounix (1842 review) and Maria di Rohan (1843) and elsewhere. In the thirteen hundred seat Capitole Theatre, Toulouse, there is not enough stage space for a grandstanding production as might have been the case at The Opéra, be that either the theatre of Donizetti’s day or at the Bastille or Palais Garnier today.

In Toulouse, Vincent Lemaire’s set of simplistic arches suffices for both the monastery and Alcazar with lighting and mirrors creating mood and distance. The only other sets are chairs and the odd stuffed peacock. The costumes seem a mélange of period and contemporary. The coloured lighting effects are complemented by Christian Lacroix’s colourful costumes of the ladies of Alphonso’s Court. The overall effect is a little nebulous and dependent too much on the flaccid direction of Vincent Boussard, and on the acting ability of the singers, to bring the whole to life. Antonello Allemandi in the pit does his best to inject some drama into the proceedings. I suspect the latter presented an additional problem with the changes to the cast. These included Kate Aldrich, at least competent in French and the Chinese tenor, Yijie Shi as late replacements. Yijie Shi’s achievement in mastering French, and learning the role in less than three months, as indicated in the bonus interviews, is quite magnificent.

Although the acting at times seems somewhat limited and stylised, the singing of the three principals is more than adequate. Native French speaker Ludovic Tézier is now the baritone of choice in lyric roles in particular in the French and Italian repertoire. Sonorous, expressive and with clear articulated diction, his singing stands out although his acted commitment lacks some vitality. As Léonor, Kate Aldrich is good most of the time with just the odd loss of pitch. If her acting is not up to the histrionic standard of Cossotto on the Italian language DVD, at least she does not overdo the histrionics. Yijie Shi is a pleasant revelation with a clear high-lying tenor well up to the demands that Donizetti wrote for his original tenor, Duprez. He phrases Donizetti’s graceful lines with feeling and a fair legato. He meets the high notes in Une ange, une femme inconnue (tr. 2) and elsewhere, without strain or tightening. Likewise his Ange si pur (CH.34) is well phrased and a pleasure to hear. Even after allowing for the small size of the Capitole Théatre, I do not doubt we will hear and see more of him on the international stage in the bel canto tenor repertoire, at least as long as he does not give his vocal all in larger theatres, that is.

In the lesser roles, Giovanni Furlanetto as Balthazar, abbot of the monastery, lacks true lower notes and is therefore restricted in interpretation and impact After a dodgy start Bénédicte Souquet portrays a well thought through and well acted portrayal of Inès.

The booklet essay by Hugo Shirley is adequate whilst the act-by-act synopsis is rather brief. The booklet presentation lacks a list of the tracks and identification of who is singing. This is a deficiency that Opus Arte does little about despite premium pricing and critical comments. Likewise Opus Arte fails to get its act together in respect of disc timings.

Until recently most collectors have come to know this opera in the Italian version through Decca’s 1974 recording with Pavarotti as Fernando and Fiorenza Cossotto as Leonora (Decca 430 038-2 DM3). Also sung in Italian there's a dated DVD featuring Fiorenza Cossotto and Alfredo Kraus. A very famous recording of the French version, made in 1912 based on a Paris Opera production, is really only for avid collectors. More recently RCA issued a slightly shortened French version, to fit on two CDs, featuring Vesselina Kasarova and Ramon Vargas.

Robert J Farr


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