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SEEN AND HEARD OPERA REVIEW
 

Donizetti, Parisina: (Concert Performance) Soloists, Geoffrey Mitchell Choir; London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Parry. Royal Festival Hall, 6.12. 2008 (CC)


Donizetti’s Parisina (1833) is a mightily impressive opera. Its strength lies in its musical structural integrity (a structural integrity that does not extend to its theatrical side, however) and its consistency of inspiration rather than in any particular excerptable numbers. Its premiere was deservedly successful but the same cannot be said of subsequent revivals and over time the opera has fallen into the shadows. Sheer haste towards the date of the premiere meant that the final act does not tie up all ends, and that Ugo, the opera’s tenor lead, dies off-stage. Perhaps the imbalance of the act timings has not helped its cause in the opera house: Act I lasted 1 hour 12 minutes; Act II was just shy of an hour; Act III, 33 minutes.

The plot is that of a tragedy. Parisina loves Ugo, an orphan taken into the court of Azzo (historically Niccolò III, Duke of Ferrara), but she has been forced to marry Azzo instead. She still loves Ugo however; and  in jealousy, Azzo sends Ugo away. This is the background to Act I, where we find Parisina downcast. A celebration is ordered to commemorate a victory in battle, and yet Azzo remains suspicious of Ugo, ordering him not to return until summoned personally. Alas, Ugo in fact appears at that very moment, borne by his love for Parisina. The scene shifts to Parisina and her consorts. Parisina is dejected as usual; enter Ugo, disguised, to press his love. Trouble comes when Azzo finds out of his return (Ugo claims ignorance of his ban). As a result of Parisina’s intercession, Ugo is spared. Act II brings a tournament, in which Ugo is the clear hero. Weary after the festivities, Parisina retires, and it is here that we are treated to a sleep-talking scene (yes, you read it correctly) that verges on music-drama. Parisina indeed talks in her sleep, overheard by Azzo – and it is Ugo’s name that is on her lips. After Parisina narrowly escapes with her life, Azzo has Ugo arrested. As Ugo is led away, Ernesto, in one of those archetypical operatic twists, barges in to reveal that Ugo is actually Azzo’s son and  Ugo is spared. In the brief Act III, Parisina reads a letter from Ugo stating they should flee and that he will come to rescue her. Instead of  Ugo appearing however, Azzo enters. The windows are opened, and there lies Ugo, dead. Parisina herself then dies in a paroxysm of grief.

It was rather strange that a pre-performance announcement stated that Carmen Giannattasio was suffering from vocal fatigue and yet we heard little if any from her. Giannattasio in fact took over as Parisina from the originally announced Patrizia Ciofi (a big name whose cancellation, going on the comments at the pre-concert talk, caused not a little consternation). Giannattasio was actually a stunning choice. She is a student of Leyla Gencer at La Scala and her credentials in this repertoire are actually immaculate – her repertoire includes Rossini’s La Donna del lago. Her great Act III aria was stunning, and beautiful; her Romanza in Act II was compelling (note how Donizetti effortlessly dovetails its end into Parisina’s lady-in-waiting Imelda’s reposte). She acts well with her voice and has great stage presence: her ‘destiny’ aria (“E’ in me natura il pianto. Forse un destin”) conveyed a superb sense of desolation, something reflected in Donizetti’s sparsely-scored accompaniment. More, Giannattasio was remarkably agile in delivering her decorations, here and elsewhere, with remarkably few aspirates. I look forward to renewing acquaintance with her.

Nicola Ulivieri’s strong baritone suited the role of Ernesto well – in fact, he was one of the stars of the evening. Dario Solari, as Azzo, was a little weak, and there was initially some air around his voice. Alas  though, the weak link in the cast was the all-important Ugo, sung by tenor José Bros, whose lightish voice emerged as over-reedy. Legato lines from Bros tended not to work either, as his voice felt rather tremulous. In the long scene between Ugo and Parisina towards the end of Act I, Bros was consistently put in the shade by the beautifully shaded phrasing of Giannattasio. The mezzo Ann Taylor took the part of Imelda very competently.

Donizetti’s imagination seemingly knew no bounds. His orchestration is consistently carefully considered and full of eyebrow-raising touches (one which stood out was now a powerful horn ensemble underpins Parisina’s entrance in Act III (“No … pi? Salir non ponno miei prieghi al ciel”) before segueing into the sustained chords that form the backdrop to Parisina’s vocalisations.

David Parry is now artistic director of Opera Rara, and Parisina was actually recorded for commercial release the week before this performance. His direction of the orchestra was one of firm control. There was some fine playing from the LPO horns in the Overture – but why was a sole member of the RFH staff wandering around the choir stalls during Donizetti’s opening gambit?In a modern staging, of course, that would probably indicate something deep. The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir was as well-polished as one would expect.

I await the recording with some impatience, an impatience compounded by the fact that the opera set is scheduled for release in September 2009. Unusually although not uniquely for an opera presented by Opera Rara, there is a CD precedent, a live account conducted by Paolo Carignani on Bongiovanni, GB2212, although given its playing time (a mere one hour 45 minutes) it must surely present a cut score. There was an LP version with the great Caballé available on BJRS134-3 which was reissued on CD by Myto (984193). Finally, you can hear Caballé for free on YouTube (New York, 1974. Alas, the video is only of nature, including  rather bizarrely, two horses at play at one point, and not a sign  of Caballé on-stage. The link is  http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=vyzGqnIEIi4.


Colin Clarke



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