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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Il diluvio universale (The Universal Flood), Tragic sacred drama in three acts (prem. 1830 Naples)
Ugo, Conte di Parigi (Hugo, Count of Paris), Tragic opera in two acts (prem. 1832 Milan)
L'assedio di Calais (The siege of Calais), Lyric drama in three acts (prem. 1836 Naples)
rec. 1977-2005

Opera Rara continues its remarkable work, breathing new life into rare and undeservedly neglected nineteenth century Italian and French opera. The label celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 2020, by which time sixty complete operas had been recorded. Now Opera Rara on its Classic series revives this limited edition set comprising three Donizetti operas Il diluvio universale, Ugo, Conte di Parigi and L'assedio di Calais which was intended to form part of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 2020 but was understandably delayed owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A Donizetti renaissance took place in the late twentieth century and although his operas L'elisir d'amore (1832), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), La Fille du régiment (1840) and Don Pasquale (1843) had maintained various degrees of popularity, many others were revived from obscurity. Undoubtedly, a debt of gratitude is owed to Opera Rara for its role in Donizetti’s international revival, contributing a remarkable twenty-six complete opera recordings. In all fairness, the label is not alone in championing Donizetti, as credit is also owed to the Italian label Dynamic for releasing a number of his operas in full productions on Blu-ray/DVD as well as some on CD. Appreciation, too, must be expressed for the stagings held at the Donizetti Festival in Bergamo and the Wexford Festival Opera.

Opera Rara doesn’t rest on its laurels and continues to build on its extensive Donizetti output. In 2019, I reviewed the world premiere recording from a live concert performance of L’Ange de Nisida (The Angle of Nisida) an opera semiseria in four acts. As recently as early 2021 there was a studio recording of Il Paria (The Outcast) a melodrama in three acts and the label’s twenty-sixth complete Donizetti opera recording (review).

The three Donizetti operas contained in this box set were originally released separately in 1978 (Ugo conte di Parigi), 1989 (L’assedio di Calais) and 2006 (Il diluvio universale) but have been unavailable in the Opera Rara catalogue for over ten years. All three Donizetti operas here are given as being world premiere studio recordings. Ugo was Opera Rara’s first recording to be released, stemming from the days of the Opera Rara Record Club.

Decidedly prolific, during his career Donizetti went on to write over seventy operas. In 1816, when he was eighteen and still a student, his first attempt was the comedy Il Pigmalione; his final complete work was in 1843, Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal, for the Paris Opéra.

In December 1830 at Milan the great success of Anna Bolena, a two act tragedia lirica, was the springboard for Donizetti’s international prominence. These three operas, all with Italian libretti, were premiered some six years apart in the 1830s when Donizetti’s fame was at its peak.

Following the triumph of Anna Bolena in 1830 Donizetti was in great demand, writing twenty-five operas during the period 1830-38 including several of his best-known works notably L’elisir d’amore (1832), Lucrezia Borgia (1833), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), Maria Stuarda (1835) and Roberto Devereux (1837). Success followed Donizetti’s move to Paris in 1838 with the operas La Fille du régiment (1840) at the Opéra Comique, Les Martyrs actually an expanded revision of Poliuto in French (1840) at the Opéra and Don Pasquale (1843) at the Théâtre Italien.

The first of these featured Opera Rara operas is Il diluvio universale (The Universal/Great Flood) in three acts with a libretto by Domenico Gilardoni, was premiered a few months prior to Anna Bolena. It was described as an azione tragico-sacra (tragic sacred drama), an amalgamation of a biblical oratorio with the music theatre of opera. As the work was due to be given during Lent when only sacred works were permitted, the description azione tragico-sacra was to deceive church censors. Despite its scenario based on the biblical story of Noè, (Noah), the great flood and the Ark, it is an opera in all but name and relates the dramatic tale of Sela ‘the favourite concubine and wife of Cadmo, chief of the Satraps from the Babylonian city Sennáár.

At its premiere in March 1830 at Teatro San Carlo, Naples, Il diluvio universale received a mixed reception. There were a few revivals including revisions made for a Genoa run in 1834. Following a Paris production in 1837 the opera failed to establish itself in the repertoire and was soon disregarded until a revival in 1985 at Genoa. Donizetti wrote two great ‘ensemble’ operas and Il diluvio universale is the first which gives prominence here to the ensemble, resulting in fewer solo arias. Of the three featured operas here this studio account was the most recent to be recorded. The original Naples edition is not used here; this is Donizetti’s complete Genoa edition. Although the names of the cast which has been chosen are new to me, they certainly excel.

From the Old Testament Book of Genesis, Noah the hero of the biblical flood is Italian bass Mirco Palazzi. Noah’s act two aria Dio tremendo, onnipossente (Tremendous God, Almighty God) is a sombre prayer imploring God to save him and his family from being burned alive in the ark. This is efficacious singing by Palazzi who is expressive while displaying his agreeable low register in an aria accompanied by harp and winds. My ideal Noah, though, would have a heavier and more distinctive voice.

In the Babylonian city of Sennáár, Cadmo chief of the Satraps is sung by tenor Colin Lee. Ada is the duplicitous confidant of Sela driven to sully her reputation and have Cadmo for herself, a role taken by Italian mezzo-soprano Manuela Custer. The duet from Act One between Cadmo and Ada Ah perfida! A me spergiura (Ah, perfidious woman, untrue to me) is a captivating exchange. South African Lee is clearly relishing the bel canto role while Custer is in quite splendid, fluid voice and makes a characterful schemer. Her Act Two aria and cabaletta Ah non tacermi in core (Ah, do not fall silent in my heart) and Sarà lieve il mio tormento (My torment will be slight) are beautifully sung, displaying her smooth, creamy tone and first-class coloratura.

Sela the beleaguered wife of Cadmo is taken by Irish soprano Majella Cullagh. Cadmo has banished Sela for adopting God and she has sought refuge with Noah. From Act Three, in Sela’s recitative and aria Senza colpa mi scacciasti (You chased me away) she desperately implores Cadmo to take her back. This is a convincing performance from the light-toned Cullagh who sings attractively with control and achieves her high notes effectively. Of the opera’s ensemble performances, standing out from Act Two is Gli empi ‘l circondano (His enemies surround him) sung by Noah and his extended family as they join in prayer to God who will decide their fate. Under the soft, brisk pacing of conductor Giuliano Carella, the London Philharmonic Orchestra plays compellingly and with no shortage of spirit.

These Donizetti operas are not without flaws, yet I have a certain fondness for all three works and especially enjoy Ugo, Conte di Parigi (Hugo, Count of Paris). It is a tragedia lirica (tragic opera) in two acts and four parts and received its premiere at La Scala in 1832. Donizetti’s librettist was Felice Romani and Ugo was set in tenth century France with Bianca, princess of Aquitania, betrothed to Luigi V, the young king of France (a travesti role). However, she loves Ugo a count of Paris who is regent. Milan was under Austrian rule and with Ugo’s plot concerning regicide it was deemed unsuitable by local censors who subjected the libretto to considerable cuts. At its premiere, Ugo was poorly received, despite star singer Giuditta Pasta creating the soprano role of Bianca, the young Giulia Grisi as Adelia and Domenico Donzelli in the title role, and it was withdrawn after a short run. Several revivals occurred over some fifteen years before Ugo eventually lay forgotten until 1977 for this Opera Rara recording. It was Patric Schmid a co-company founder who reconstructed the opera from the composer’s autograph manuscript. This studio recording of Ugo was made in 1977 in the Henry Wood Hall, London.

We have a truly well-balanced cast selected here by Opera Rara, including bel canto specialists Della Jones, Janet Price and Yvonne Kenny. There are a number of highlights to enjoy in this lively-paced opera with a sense of forward momentum and no shortage of melodious episodes in the florid writing. A tricky role, Bianca the princess of Aquitania is sung by Janet Price who creates a fine portrayal of this objectionable character with all her scheming and bitter rages. In Bianca’s Act One aria Ah! Quando in regio talamo (Ah! When I believed happiness). the Welsh soprano excels as the princess asks her sister Adelia for help and is brought to tears. In the caballeta No, che infelice appieno (No, fate did not intend me) the princess tells her ladies-in-waiting how she desires new courage. This is terrific singing from Price whose crystal-clear soprano voice impresses across its range, displaying renowned trills and impeccable control in the part’s decorations.   

Folco d'Angiò, a prince of royal blood, is sung by South African baritone Christian du Plessis. In act one Folco hurtles straight into his aria Vani voti! A lui del padre (Useless prayers! For him is reserved). Following the coronation of Luigi V, du Plessis impresses as Folco who confidently proclaims his nefarious schemes with a curse. Du Plessis might possibly have provided a touch more sense of threat, but this remains a spirited performance.

In the trouser role of the king, leading Welsh mezzo-soprano and Opera Rara stalwart Della Jones seems an eminently suitable choice and is in characteristically warm voice. She shines in Luigi’s act two scene and aria Prova mi dai, lo sento (You have proved) with lovely flute accompaniment where the king admits that his suspicions are groundless. In its caballeta with chorus Quanta mi costi a svellere (How much it costs me to tear out), he affirms how cruel Bianca has been. Singing with determined command of her role, Jones is in captivating and characterful form, displaying few problems when reaching for her high notes.

Ugo a count of Paris serving as regent to the king of France Luigi V, and Adelia who is princess Bianca’s sister have been keeping their love secret. Underrated English tenor Maurice Arthur sings the part of Ugo with Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny as Adelia. A genuine highlight is Ugo’s and Adelia’s duet Li saprà. Vogl’io svelarli (She will learn of them. I want to reveal them) from Part Two where the couple are worried about keeping their relationship secret and how Adelia loves Ugo, not crowns and thrones. Following on is Se tu m’ami... se ti move (If you love me... If you are moved) where Bianca appears and Adelia warns Ugo to stay out of her sister’s way but refuses to tell him why. Appealing and effective, Arthur’s tenor voice has focus and resolve. Kenny has an impressive voice which she regulates well here; her highest notes are achieved adroitly, and her dramatic engagement is total. This stunning duet generates a special frisson, and I wonder if Arthur and Kenny have ever sung better than this.

Last but not least is Welsh soprano Eiddwen Harrhy as the king’s mother Emma, who doesn’t have a solo aria. From Part Four, her affecting duet with Bianca Ah! tutto il mira, ah! tutto (Ah! Behold it all, yes! Everything) as they both try to comfort one another, is mournful yet gloriously sung. In suitably mature and expressive voice, Harrhy sings beautifully. From Act Two, the chorus of the women of the court I suon dell’armi più forte echeggia (The sounds of battle grow louder) is striking and makes an impact as they hear the battle in progress and pray for peace. Conductor Alun Francis excels in Donizetti’s music and his passion has clearly rubbed off on the New Philharmonia Orchestra who adopt the same level of engagement.

The third opera here L'assedio di Calais (The siege of Calais) is in three acts to a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano. Despite a cholera epidemic breaking out at Naples in 1836 L'assedio di Calais (The siege of Calais) was premiered that same year at the Teatro San Carlo in the city. It was quite well received during its initial run but Donizetti was dissatisfied with the third act of the opera and after 1840 it was cast aside. L'assedio di Calais was not heard again until a revival in 1990 at Bergamo and the following year Wexford. The score concerns patriotism and bravery, and a particularly fine cast has been assembled.

In 2017 at Grand Theatre, Blackpool I reported from an English Touring Opera production of L'assedio di Calais a two-act staging updated to modern times which I summed up as ‘providing such satisfying entertainment’.

Based on an event in French history, this romanticised dramma lirico (lyric drama) set in mid fourteenth century Calais, takes place in the city besieged by the army of English king Edoardo III during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Eustachio mayor of Calais together with a small group of burghers elect to forfeit their own lives by execution ‘in exchange for lasting peace’. Heartened by the selflessness of the mayor and burghers, Isabella the English queen convinces the king to stop the bloodshed and terminate the siege.

There is no lead tenor role in L'assedio di Calais, although we have Della Jones singing another travesti role, this time hero Aurelio, the son of Eustachio the mayor of Calais. Standing out is Aurelio’s act one aria Al mio core oggetti amati (Let me hold to my heart) where having escaped from the English camp, he is greeted by his wife Eleonora and father Eustachio who believes him dead. The outstanding Jones provides deeply-felt singing in this larghetto aria. She certainly succeeds in portraying Aurelio’s sheer relief to still be alive and reunited with his family. In the concluding section, Jones’ leaps up to her highest notes, displaying a crisp and rapid fluttering vibrato that is not unappealing. Aurelio’s caballeta Giammai del forte ardir non langue (Never may our courage grow less) which becomes a quartet is suitably exuberant, as with great resolve they swear to fight to their last drop of blood.

Nuccia Focile is well-suited to the role of Eleonora, the wife of Aurelio, Italian soprano. In her act two aria Breve riposo a lui concede il sonno (May sleep grant him a short rest) whilst Aurelio is sleeping, Eleonora implores God to save Calais and its people. Clearly empathetic to the character, Focile sings beautifully in a most tender rendition and is joined by a women’s choir.

Of the duets I have picked out as especially dramatic, in the first act scene between Eleonora the young daughter-in-law and the mature Eustachio, is Le fibre, oh Dio! m’investe (A dreadful icy hand, oh God). Nuccia Focile and Christian du Plessis persuasively portray Eleonora and Eustachio’s anxiety and grief-filled emotions before the elation of discovering that Aurelio has escaped and is alive with the cabaletta Un istante i mali oblìo (In one moment I forget the troubles). Focile’s bright soprano is in irresistible condition and Christian du Plessis’ low baritone sounds splendid. Displaying such a sincere feel for the text, their voices when joined together make this is a special moment in the opera.

To conclude Act Two, the chorus gives a remarkable performance of O sacra polve, o suol natio (Oh treasured soil, our homeland) a piece that I am surprised is not better known. As the hostages prepare to be killed and sink to their knees, their friends and family describe them as martyrs and patriots, and beg God’s mercy for their entry to heaven.

Singing respectably, the Irish baritone Russell Smythe is Edoardo III the king of England whose army is besieging the port of Calais. Act Three, which is not Donizetti’s most inspired creation, contains Edoardo’s scene and aria Ogn’inciampo è alfin distrutto (Every obstacle to my glory). Edoardo is acclaiming his triumphant victory while the sound of cannon announces the arrival of queen Isabella. Upbeat, to almost comic music Edoardo’s cabaletta Il suon di tanto plauso (The resounding cries) is sung to the martial sound of trumpets. Without being outstanding Smythe adapts well to the role although in fairness I wanted a more distinctive and substantial voice. The small role of Queen Isabella is sung by soprano Eiddwen Harrhy who does all that is asked of her.

Under David Parry, the Philharmonia is a fine orchestra, giving a performance which certainly holds my attention. The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir excels, and it is good to be reminded of the valuable contribution both Mitchell and his choir have in fact made in all three of these Donizetti operas.

Opera Rara has recorded each of these operas in different years and at separate London venues and state that all have been remastered for this issue. I don’t have the original releases to make comparisons though having auditioned this new set several times, I have not experienced any sound problems worthy of mention. Overall, for each opera the recorded sound has pleasing clarity and balance. The accompanying booklet includes a new essay from Roger Parker label artistic dramaturge and there are a few photographs of the performers. For each opera a cast and track list are provided together with a useful synopsis. Though the full libretto and translation was provided in the booklets of the original CD releases, disappointingly there are no librettos provided in the booklet for this box set. Nonetheless, the libretto can be downloaded free from the Opera Rara website.

Since its inception, Opera Rara has done remarkable service for Donizetti and other bel canto composers, too, such as Mayr, Pacini and Mercadante. Newly remastered and reissued, this seven CD set of three Donizetti operas is a necessity for those who missed them individually first time and I also commend the release to general enthusiasts of bel canto opera.

Michael Cookson

Opera Rara later this year (Friday 3rd December 2021) at Cadogan Hall, London will be presenting a concert performance of Leoncavallo’s Zingari in its restored original version. Prior to the performance this seldom heard verismo opera in one act will receive its first studio recording.

The label has stated that its next Opera Rara Classics release will be an eight CD box set ‘Rossini in 1819’ comprising of remastered recordings of Ermione, La donna del lago and Bianca e Falliero which is planned for February 2022.

Il diluvio universale (The Universal Flood)
Azione tragico-sacra (Sacred tragedy) or opera in three acts (prem. 1830 Naples)
Noè, (Noah) - Mirco Palazzi
Jafet, son of Noè - Simon Bailey
Sem, son of Noè - Mark Wilde
Cam, son of Noè - Dean Robinson
Cadmo, chief of the Satraps, husband of Sela - Colin Lee
Sela, wife of Cadmo - Majella Cullagh
Ada, Sela’s confidante - Manuela Custer
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Giuliano Carella
rec. October/November 2005 Conway Hall (South London Ethical Society), London
Originally released on OPERA RARA ORC31 [2 CDs: 128 mins]

Ugo, Conte di Parigi (Hugo, Count of Paris),
Tragedia lirica (tragic opera) in two acts and four parts (prem. 1832 Milan)
Luigi V, King of France - Della Jones
Emma, his mother - Eiddwen Harrhy
Bianca, Princess of Aquitania - Janet Price
Adelia, her sister - Yvonne Kenny
Ugo, Count of Paris - Maurice Arthur
Folco di Angiò - Christian du Plessis
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir,
New Philharmonia Orchestra / Alun Francis
rec. July 1977, Henry Wood Hall, London
Originally released on OPERA RARA ORC1 [3 CDs: 156 mins]

L'assedio di Calais (The siege of Calais), dramma lirico (lyric drama) in three acts (prem. 1836 Naples)
Eustachio de Saint-Pierre, mayor of Calais - Christian du Plessis
Aurelio, his son - Della Jones
Eleonora, wife of Aurelio - Nuccia Folice 
Giacomo de Wisants, a burgher - Paul Nilon
Pietro de Wisants, a burgher - Ian Platt
Armando, a burgher - Mark Glanville
Giovanni d’Aire, a burgher - Rico Serbo
Edoardo III, king of England - Russell Smythe
Isabella, queen of England - Eiddwen Harrhy
Edmondo, English general - John Treleaven
A stranger - Norman Bailey
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir,
Philharmonia Orchestra / David Parry
rec. June/July 1988 All Saints Church, London
Originally released on OPERA RARA ORC9 [2 CDs: 124 mins]

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