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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Le Duc d'Albe (1839)
(recording of first two acts of unfinished four act grand opera. Sung in French)
Angela Meade (soprano) - Hélène d'Egmont
Michael Spyres (tenor) - Henri de Bruges
Laurent Naouri (bass baritone) - Le Duc d'Albe
Gianluca Buratto (bass) - Daniel Brauer
Trystan Llyr Griffiths (tenor) - Carlos
Robin Tritschler (tenor) - Balbuena
Dawid Kimberg (baritone) - Un Tavernier
Opera Rara Chorus, Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. June 2015 Hallé St. Peter’s, Ancoats, Manchester, UK
OPERA RARA ORC54 [44.58 + 48.40]

Donizetti’s international revival continues, as Opera Rara under its artistic director Sir Mark Elder continues its sterling work in recovering neglected opera with a recording of the incomplete grand opéra Le Duc d'Albe, a work of the composer’s maturity.

Donizetti first mentions Le Duc d'Albe in 1839 in a letter to his teacher Simone Mayr. The Bergamo born master composer had been living in Paris for 6 months and the banning of his opera Polito by the King of Naples still rankled hard. Le Duc d'Albe was one of two grand opéra commissions Donizetti had from the world renowned Académie Royale de Musique; known in France as L'Opéra. With Les martyrs completed the composer concentrated for a time on Le Duc d'Albe to a libretto by Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier. Delays to the première of Les martyrs and work on La fille du régiment lay heavily on Donizetti’s mind and together with other opportunities affected his work on Le Duc d'Albe and eventually the half finished opera, despite false starts, was shelved.

After Donizetti’s death publisher Giuseppina Lucca appointed a jury to oversee a completion of Le Duc d'Albe which was undertaken by Mattio Salvi an ex-pupil of Donizetti. It was premièred in an Italian translation as Il duca d'Alba at Rome in 1882. Although Salvi’s completion was revived, it vanished from the repertoire until it was rediscovered in 1951. Of Donizetti’s Le Duc d'Albe the libretto by Scribe and Duveyrier had survived, together with almost half of the opera written in full. Opera Rara decided that the rest of the opera was too fragmentary to be considered for revival as a Donizetti opera and only the first two acts would be recorded. Martin Fitzpatrick was commissioned to “complete the few parts of the score that were left unfinished” which are detailed in the accompanying booklet.

A feeling of heady patriotism and the intense pattern of intrigue infuses the completed acts which reminded me greatly of the slightly later Verdi grand operas Les vêpres siciliennes and Simon Boccanegra. Set in late sixteenth century Brussels the scene is an army barracks and a brewery – an almost certain recipe for trouble. Fundamentally the Flemish population is under Spanish domination headed by the regional ruler, the iron-handed Duke of Alba, who has recently ordered the beheading of the Count of Egmont. The plot hinges on the plans of the dominated Flemish citizens to assassinate the Duke of Alba.

An experienced opera director, Sir Mark Elder’s passion for French Grand Opera is infectious, with his enthusiastic team of soloists clearly up for the task. This is American Angela Meade’s debut recording for Opera Rara and her dramatic soprano voice makes a significant impact as Hélène d'Egmont. Immediately one notices Meade’s poised and secure voice together with her ability to deliver brilliant colour and expression in spades. Ravishing and worthy of particular acclaim is Hélène’s big act II aria Ton ombre murmure imploring the ghost of her executed father to intercede to save Henri. Delivered with emphatic freshness Meade brings the character to life with just the right level of torment and vulnerability.

Michael Spyres who performed on the label’s recording of Les Martyrs sings the role of Henri de Bruges. Standing out is Henri’s act I aria Ah! Oui, longtemps en silence which Spyres relishes, with his bright, sweet edged tenor inhabiting an unsullied air. I also enjoyed the fearless heroic character that the keen American gives to his aria Punis mon audace! Frenchman Laurent Naouri featured on the label’s recording of Gounod’s La Colombe. In the role of the tyrannical ruler Le Duc d'Albe, the experienced Naouri sings with an appealing distinguished quality. Nevertheless in the scene containing his aria Je devrais te punir the bass-baritone might have brought some additional chill and latent menace to the role. A highlight is Le Duc’s scene and duet with Henri, virile and magnetic, generating a blend of voices that sounds magnificent. Gianluca Buratto takes the role of Daniel Brauer and demonstrates a real feel for the sweep of the music conveying the qualities of his rich and dark timbred, steadfast bass to considerable effect.

Not an opera orchestra, the Hallé will only infrequently encounter Donizetti’s bel canto writing but it clearly learns quickly and excels here, capturing the constantly changing moods. Sir Mark keeps the narrative and dramatic rhythm flowing commendably. Forthright and lusty, the Opera Rara Chorus is in remarkable form especially in the Chœur de Peuple and Chœur de conjures. Clearly well drilled by chorus master Stephen Harris the level of unity is high but it doesn’t come at the expense of vocal character.

The accompanying booklet is lavish, full of helpful information including an essay by Roger Parker and several pictures of the production and performers. As we have come to expect from this source there is a concise and helpful synopsis, complete with full texts and English translations. Recorded at St. Peter’s, Ancoats, the Hallé’s own recording and rehearsal studio, the sound team has provided clarity and excellent balance between the various forces.

After hearing this impressive Opera Rara recording of Donizetti’s completed two acts of Le Duc d'Albe I was left with the overwhelming feeling of what the opera world had missed which in truth is all that one can ask of an unfinished work. It would be good if Opera Rara would turn to the French Grand operas of Fromental Halévy a really underrepresented French composer who never again received the same level of acclaim after writing his masterpiece La Juive.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Robert Farr (Recording of the Month)



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