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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
La Favorite, Opera in four acts (1840)
Fernand, a novice monk in love with Léonor – Matthew Polenzani (ten); Alphonse XI, King of Castille – Mariusz Kwiecień (bar); Léonor de Guzmán, mistress of the King – Elīna Garanča (mezzo); Balthazar, abbot of the monastery – Mika Kares (bass). Inès, Elsa Benoit (soprano); Gaspar, Joshua Owen Mills (bar)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera/Karel Mark Chicon
Stage Director, Amelie Niermayer
Set design, Alexander Müuller-Elmau
Costume design, Kirsten Dephoff
TV and Video Director, Tiziano Mancini
rec. October 31 and November 6, 2016, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich
Audio formats, PCM Stereo 5.1. NTSC Colour. Aspect ratio 16:9.
Introductory note and act synopsis in English, German and French
Subtitles in English, German, Spanish and French (original language)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DVD 073 5358 [157 mins]

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 Halevy at The Opéra, the Academie Imperiale 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, even in Naples with its professional orchestra and 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 for their work available in Paris as well as the safeguarding of performance rights.

Donizetti’s Marino Faliero was premiered on March 12th 1835 and followed Bellini’s I Puritani, the latter rather overshadowing 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 Lamermoor in Naples on September 26th. 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 of Lucia at the Théâtre de Rennaisance. He followed this with three operas in Paris in 1840. La Fille du Regiment at the Opera Comique (11th February), Les Martyrs (10th April) and La Favorite on December 2nd, 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 Rennaisance. 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 rigeur at The Opéra. To the new act four he added the lovely tenor aria for Fernand, ‘Ange si pur’ (DVD 2. CH.12) known to all tenors of the Italian school as ‘Spirito 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 700 performances of the work were given at the Paris Opéra. More recently the operatic world has demanded to see and hear the work, as given here in the original French rather than in Italian as on the Decca’s 1974 recording of the work as La Favorita with Pavarotti as Fernando and Fiorenza Cossotto as Leonora.

The story is set in 14th 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, returing as 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.

With the famed mezzo Elīna Garanča making more appearances, once again, in the bel canto repertoire, the Deutsche Oper Berlin cast her in the demanding role of Léonor to some acclaim in three concert performances in December 2015. In this fully staged, if that is the word for this so-called staging in Munich, she was a natural call and sings and acts quite superbly throughout. The costumes are contemporary which suits Garanča to perfection; she looks stunning throughout and one needs no doubt as to the cause of Fernand’s love for her, having met her at the font. She sings in better than passable French and acts with conviction. She is the star of the performance. As her would-be lover, Matthew Polenzani, Metropolitan Opera’s tenore di grazia, sings and acts with great conviction in commendable French. He varies his tone from full voiced to mezza voce on the breath, bringing true emotion to the words. His singing of ‘Ange si pur’ (DVD 2. Ch.12) should remind all lovers of singing what bel canto is about. As Balthazar, abbot of the monastery, Mika Kares sings with sonority and acts the mentor to Fernand well, whether in strictness or compassion. I am not over-enthusiastic about Mariusz Kwiecień’s singing finding his tone varying between the beautiful and worn whilst at times his acting is over-stressed. Elsa Benoit as Inès sings and acts well. The conducting of British Gibralterian, and husband of Elīna Garanča, Karel Mark Chicon, treats the music and its idiom with respect.

Given the above positives regarding the singing and music-making I ask, rhetorically, if this performance goes to the top of a very short list including the performance from Toulouse (see review). It depends how one views the production and particularly the set and costumes. I personally would prefer the costumes to be in period, but here only the somewhat ridiculous costume of Alphonse did I find inappropriate. The lack of an appropriate wig and make up leaves the Balthazar of Mika Kares looking like an overgrown adolescent rather than a mature Father Superior and mentor to Fernand.

I have thus far said little about the set and Amelie Niermayer’s production. There is little to be said about the set, as it is minimal, being made up for the most part of what look like 1960s school chairs which are moved about, thrown about and sometimes sat on! Otherwise the efforts at portraying the monastery consist of a folding backdrop to reveal a crucified figure that moves from time to time and statues. There is little of any vision or production theme that I can discern, except that she converts Alphonse XI from being regal to being a childish and somewhat petulant adolescent bereft of any regality and contrary to the music which, of course, you do not get in the straight theatre from where she comes!

Robert J Farr



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