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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Le Duc D’Albe - Acts I and II (new performing edition by Roger Parker) (1839)
Hélène d’Egmont, daughter of the recently beheaded Count of Egmont - Angela Meade (soprano); Henri de Bruges, a young Flemish patriot - Michael Spyres (tenor); Le Duc d'Albe, Governor of Flanders - Laurent Naouri (baritone); Sandoval, captain of the Spanish troops – David Stout (bass); Daniel Brauer, revolutionary and local brewer - Gianluca Buratto (bass); Carlos - Trystan Llyr Griffiths (tenor); Balbuena - Robin Tritschler (tenor); Un Tavernier - Dawid Kimberg (baritone); Opera Rara Chorus
Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. New Hallé St Peter's and BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, October 2012
OPERA RARA ORC54 [44.58 + 48.40]

This is a relatively new venture for the outstandingly imaginative recording outfit that is Opera Rara. The label's fifty-fourth recording sees them venturing on an uncompleted work by Donizetti, the composer they love the most.

The composer had decamped from Naples to Paris when the censors, on the king’s personal instructions, banned his opera Poliuto. The Paris Opéra had already sounded him out about a composition for them. After presenting his Roberto Devereux at the Théâtre Italien he set about revising and extending the music of Poliuto into Les Martyrs which was premiered on 10 April 1840. This was nearly a year after he had finished the composition due to various delays that were not unusual at that theatre (review). Along the way Donizetti had started writing Le Duc d'Albe whilst also fitting in La Fille du Régiment for the Opéra Comique. However, management changes at the Opéra delayed the proposed premiere of Le Duc d'Albe and when it was eventually scheduled the composer was not happy with the carded singers. With only half of the new work composed in full, Donizetti returned to Italy to present an Italian version of La Fille du Régiment and in consequence the incomplete work was never finished (booklet essay p.12 et seq by Roger Parker and also The Bel canto Operas, Charles Osborne, Methuen, 1994, pp. 270-272). Others have attempted completion from the inadequate sketches left at the time of Donizetti's premature death (Dynamic CDS7665 - review).

Being purists, and not impressed by the attempts at completion referred to, Opera Rara have given us what Donizetti left us … and sterling music it turns out to be. I have always tended to think that this composer was influenced in his later compositions by being present at the première of Verdi’s third opera, Nabucco, at La Scala on 9 March 1842. The vibrancy of this music, aided by a virile chorus, inspirational conducting from Sir Mark Elder and the wonderful acoustic of the Hallé’s new base in Manchester, Ancoats is caught to perfection. All this makes me inclined to stand back from my earlier view as I did also in my review of Les Martyrs. I have heard most of Donizetti's later works, courtesy of Opera Rara’s recordings. Although I have heard in those works threads of creativity that match, or better, that which is present here, in the finite totality of these ninety minutes or so I found more of a fully woven unity.

The story is set in Flanders in the late sixteenth century, the period of Verdi’s Don Carlos. The country is subjugated under Spanish rule. The Count of Egmont — scion of a wealthy Low Countries’ dynasty — has, the day before the action begins, been beheaded by order of the Duke of Alba, the despotic Spanish ruler of the region. Act I takes place in the Grand Place in Brussels. Spanish soldiers rejoice while the Flemish populace mutters its resentment. Daniel, a master-brewer and Flemish patriot, has taken into his care Hélène, daughter of the Count of Egmont. He escorts her to the very place where her father was executed. Goaded by Spanish soldiers, Hélène launches into a song in defiance of Spanish rule, thereby enthusing the people. Their new-found courage is immediately dampened by the arrival of the feared Duke of Alba. Henri de Bruges, a young Flemish firebrand, appears and, unaware of the Duke’s identity, roundly condemns the Spanish overlords. However, and to the amazement of his soldiers, the Duke fails to respond, merely sending everyone away so that he can be alone with Henri. The Duke questions Henri about his parentage, and then invites him to enlist in the Spanish army, an invitation quickly and vehemently spurned. The Duke warns him to stay away from the rebels, but Henri, is defiant and enters Daniel’s brasserie. Henri cannot understand why he was released by the Duke. He and Hélène swear their mutual love and their commitment to the cause of freedom. Daniel appears with a group of conspirators who arm themselves with weapons hidden in one of the beer barrels. Spanish soldiers, commanded by Sandoval, burst in and discover the weapons. Everyone is arrested except Henri, who angrily demands why he has been spared. Sandoval tells him it is on the Duke’s orders. The act ends in confusion, neither the conspirators nor Henri understanding why he is being shielded by the Duke. The remainder of the opera (Act II) is not dissimilar to the story-line in Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes.

The principal roles of Hélène and her admirer, Henri de Bruges, are sung by the American duo of Angela Meade and Michael Spyres. Her pure lyric soprano has plenty of underlying strength and is only marred by a rare touch of acidity. Otherwise she sings with good characterisation and expression. As in Les Martyrs Spyres is formidable in range (CD 2 tr. 13), characterisation and vocal expression as well as appealing tonal beauty. He is surely the contender to inherit when the renowned Diego Florez hangs up his vocal chords. The two Americans are heard to good effect in the act two extended scene (trs. 6-11). Laurent Naouri, the only Francophone in the cast characterizes well as the Spanish suppressor. There is a pleasing tonal difference to the voices of David Stout as Sandoval and the revolutionary brewer Daniel sonorously portrayed by Gianluca Buratto. British singers fill the smaller roles with the Welsh seemingly to the fore.

It may seem short measure but the quality of Donizetti’s original creation along with the performance itself make this a must-have for lovers of bel canto.

Robert J Farr



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