21 February 2016

ARTS IN ACTION: Washington Concert Opera resurrects Donizetti's rarely-performed La favorite — et en français!

ARTS IN ACTION: Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE resurrected by Washington Concert Opera, 4 March 2016 [Image of a scene from LA FAVORITE by Lee Woodward Zeigler, © 1899]Le roi, l’amant, et la favorite: Scene from Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite, to be performed in concert in Lisner Auditorium by Washington Concert Opera on 4 March 2016, by artist Lee Woodward Zeigler [Image © 1899 by the artist; public domain]

Many events in the life of Gaetano Donizetti would not seem out of place in the plots of his operas. Born in the town of Bergamo in Lombardia in 1797, Donizetti was only five years younger than Gioachino Rossini but is often regarded by modern observers as belonging to a markedly different generation of bel canto. Rather than an elder statesman and a younger protégé of sorts, Rossini and Donizetti were for a decade of their respective careers rivals on Italy’s stages. Though he retired from the composition of opera after the première of Guillaume Tell in 1829, before the scores for which Donizetti is most remembered—Anna Bolena (1830), L’elisir d’amore (1832), Lucrezia Borgia (1833), Maria Stuarda (1835), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), La fille du régiment (1840), and Don Pasquale (1843)—were first performed, Rossini outlived Donizetti by twenty years, after all. In the half-century of his life, Donizetti endured crippling hardships on and off the stage, many of which inevitably exerted indelible influences on his artistic development. Unlike many of his contemporaries who were born into musical lineages, Donizetti’s very humble beginnings did not afford him the luxury of an established artistic pedigree. Enrolled by his father in a school for choirboys in his native city, his prodigious musical gifts were soon discovered and cultivated by Johann Simon Mayr, the Bavarian maestro di capella at the Duomo di Bergamo throughout most of Donizetti’s life. None of Donizetti’s three children survived infancy, and the death of his young wife Virginia in 1837, less than a year after the deaths of both his parents, left him a lonely widower whose two brothers were seldom in proximity. Battered by failures and legal entanglements, clashes with theatres’ managers and impresarios, the underhanded machinations of rivals and their cabals, the damaging work of censors, and decades-long effects of ailments ultimately diagnosed as symptoms of syphilis, the final years of the composer’s life were a dispiriting maelstrom of depression, mental and physical decline, and dedicated but increasingly desperate work. It was in the midst of what must have been near-constant struggles to meet his professional commitments whilst confronting the tribulations of his life beyond Europe’s opera houses that La favorite clawed its way to life in the autumn of 1840. Now rarely heard, La favorite will receive from Washington Concert Opera on 4 March not only the gift of being performed by an exceptionally well-chosen cast with the technical dexterity that the music requires but also the great benefit of being sung in the original French rather than the more familiar but largely ineffectual Italian translation.

​A setting of an adaptation by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz of François-Thomas-Marie de Baculard d’Arnaud’s play Les Amants malheureux, ou le Comte de Comminges, La favorite was composed to order for the Paris Opéra, Donizetti’s initial subject for his second commission from that venerable institution, his never-completed Le duc d’Albe, having reputedly fallen victim to a force far more insurmountable than government censorship—the objection of a theatre manager to a score without an appropriately significant rôle for his paramour, in this case the renowned mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz. [Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century has called this theory into question, citing Nineteenth-Century accounts that repudiate the allegation, hinted at in Donizetti’s correspondence, that the lack of a choice part for Stoltz begat Le duc d’Albe’s doom. Whether or not the prima donna’s pride was truly the cause of Le duc losing his title, it certainly makes for a delectably operatic story!] Repurposing his music for an opera entitled L’ange de Nisida, composed in 1839 [and itself a reworking of an earlier score that was never performed, 1834’s Adelaide] but never performed first because of anticipation of the Italian censors’ rejection of the subject matter and then owing to the French institution contracted for the work’s première crumbling into insolvency, Donizetti followed the example of his first opera for Salle Le Peletier, Les martyrs, a French adaptation of Poliuto. For Rosine Stoltz, the soprano rôle of Comtesse Sylvia de Linares was transformed into the mezzo-soprano Léonor de Guzman, and the action was transplanted from the original Naples to Fourteenth-Century Castile. Examining an opera through the lens of its composer’s life is often a dangerous business, but it is difficult to imagine that Donizetti was not affected by the intrinsic sentimental parallels among the situations in La favorite and his own experiences. To the extent of the knowledge that history permits, Donizetti never suffered the misfortune of falling in love with a royal personage’s mistress, but, by the time that La favorite was premièred at the Académie Royale de Musique on 2 December 1840, he surely knew all too well the agonies of loss and isolation. Musically, La favorite is by no means an inadequate companion for the scores upon the virtues of which Donizetti’s enduring popularity rests, so why is it performed so infrequently when Lucia di Lammermoor and L’elisir d’amore remain in regular rotation in the repertories of virtually every major opera house?

Such a question is never answered easily. With the Metropolitan Opera’s 2015 – 2016 Season including the company’s first performances of Roberto Devereux, alongside revivals of Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda as components of the so-called Tudor Trilogy, the mounting of which is also a first in MET history, a lauded production of Poliuto having been one of the triumphs of Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s 2015 offerings, and revivals and new productions of a number of Donizetti operas occupying prominent places in many opera company’s current and future seasons, the neglect of La favorite seems perplexing, at least on the surface. In truth, however, wholly satisfying performances of Anna Bolena, Lucia di Lammermoor, La fille du régiment, or any of Donizetti’s operas—performances, that is, in which every musical element fully meets the composer’s demands—are no more common than flawless stagings of Tristan und Isolde and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Perhaps, then, familiar imperfections are more palatable to Twenty-First-Century tastes than unfamiliar ones. The four acts of La favorite, the last of which was reputedly composed in less than four hours (an accomplishment of which Rossini would have been proud), contain music of consistently high quality that necessitates the participation of singers possessing bel canto techniques of the highest order in each of the principal rôles. By heeding this necessity with the engagement of a cast distinguished by the presence of a singer as gifted as tenor Rolando Sanz in the supporting rôle of Don Gaspar, as well as liberating the cast, all singing their rôles for the first time, from the worries of stage action by presenting the opera in concert under the baton of Artistic Director and Conductor Antony Walker, Washington Concert Opera’s performance advances a singular opportunity to make the acquaintance of La favorite as Donizetti intended.

CONFIDENT CONFIDANTE: Soprano JOÉLLE HARVEY, Inès in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Arielle Doneson, © by Joélle Harvey]Confident confidante: Soprano Joélle Harvey, Inès in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's La favorite, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Arielle Doneson, © by Joélle Harvey]

Hailing from Bolivar, New York, soprano ​​Joé​lle Harvey​​ comes to Washington, where her Sophie in Washington Concert Opera’s 2011 performance of Massenet’s Werther was delightful, to portray Inès in La favorite with an impressive array of operatic portraits already on display in her musical gallery. Among interpretations of music from many niches of the repertoire, her performances of the music of Georg Friedrich Händel, not least in radiant accounts of the soprano arias in Messiah with the Indianapolis and Virginia Symphonies, have been particularly memorable. Though her technique easily encompasses period-appropriate handling of Händelian filigree, Harvey belongs to a rare class of singers for whom mastery of Baroque repertory is not a specialized undertaking but a vital element of the healthiest, most organic method of true bel canto singing. ‘I love singing Händel,’ she recently commented, ‘and find that doing so has allowed me to develop a palette of colors that serves me well in the other repertoire that I sing. Händel requires the musician to be able to open up the voice (or instrument) fully and also to be able to pare it down to a simple and honest sound.’ In preparing her depiction of Inès, whose arrest before she can reach Fernand with Léonor’s confessional message precipitates the ultimate tragedy of La favorite, she has focused first and foremost on preserving that ‘simple and honest sound.’ ‘I think that it would be easy to over-sing a rôle like Inès simply to make an impression due to the relative brevity of the rôle,’ Harvey confided. ‘However, understanding that making music isn’t about being the loudest—or lengthiest [in terms of duration of one’s music]—on stage is a very important step. As with the smaller rôle of Giannetta in L’elisir d’amore, I believe that Inès’s purpose is to bring some levity to the proceedings.’ With this singer in command of her music, her purpose is also to markedly enhance the beauty of the performance.

MAN OF THE CLOTH: Bass JOHN REYLEA, Balthazar in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Shirley Suarez, © by John Relyea]Man of the cloth: Bass John Relyea, Balthazar in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Shirley Suarez, © by John Relyea]

To the rôle of Balthazar, Supérieur of the monastery of the Orden de Santiago de Compostela and father of Alphonse XI’s queen consort, Toronto-born bass John Relyea brings an astonishingly wide spectrum of experience exemplified by his appearances at the Metropolitan Opera, where his assignments have included Garibaldo in Händel’s Rodelinda, the Voce dell’oracolo di Nettuno, Figaro, and Masetto in Mozart’s Idomeneo, re di Creta, Le nozze di Figaro, and Don Giovanni, bel canto parts like Rossini’s Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Alidoro in La Cenerentola (the rôle of his MET début in 2000), Giorgio in Bellini’s I puritani, and Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor, and later repertory such as Banco in Verdi’s Macbeth, Méphistophélès in Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust and Gounod’s Faust, Colline in Puccini’s La bohème, and Vodník in Dvořák’s Rusalka. One of the finest Verdi singers of his generation, Relyea is acutely attentive to the strong link between Donizetti’s Balthazar and the bass rôles in several of Verdi’s greatest scores. ‘Balthazar’s character is set in a similar position to the Monk in Don Carlo,’ Relyea remarked. ‘Both have broad, stentorian, declamato passages in the music.’ Even the oft-analyzed suspicion of ecclesiastical authority that pervades Verdi’s mature operas is suggested in the interactions of Balthazar and Alphonse in La favorite. ‘The aspect of the church’s power over the crown is evident, similar to Don Carlo’s Inquisitor,’ Relyea observed, ‘but Balthazar is a much more sympathetic, less fiery character, dramatically and musically, as shown in some rather flowing lyrical lines, especially in the final scenes with chorus—a rôle best suited to a true basso cantante.’​ In the twenty-five MET performances, in New York and on tour, of La favoriteLa favorita, actually, as all performances were sung in Italian—between its 1895 company première and its most recent outing at Virginia’s Wolf Trap in 1978, Balthazar’s habit has been donned by only three singers: Pol Plançon, Bonaldo Giaiotti, and James Morris. In voice and appreciation of Balthazar’s significance in both La favorite and the broader context of the development of rôles for bass in the course of Nineteenth-Century opera, Relyea is a sensationally worthy successor to these very different but imposing artists.

IN PERFORMANCE: Baritone JAVIER ARREY, Alphonse XI in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE, 4 March 2016 [Photo © by Javier Arrey / Harrison Parrott]Un jour de règne: Baritone Javier Arrey, Alphonse XI in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite, 4 March 2016 [Photo © by Javier Arrey / Harrison Parrott]

The singing of ​Chilean baritone ​Javier Arrey​​ portends a welcome restoration to Donizetti’s troubled King of Castile, Alphonse XI, like Balthazar an ancestor of dynamic figures in the Verdi canon (in Alphonse’s case, Don Carlo in Ernani, Conte di Luna in Il trovatore, and Anckarström/Renato in Un ballo in maschera, primarily), of the regal profile that he enjoyed when sung in years past by Louis Quilico and Sherrill Milnes. Combining the rugged vocal strength of Paolo Silveri with the insightfulness of Rolando Panerai, Arrey constructs his interpretation of Alphonse upon the foundation of the confounding ambiguity of the king’s predicament. ‘One of the most interesting and difficult things about Alphonse is the contrast that takes place in this character, the mix as a powerful king and also a vulnerable man in love capable of [doing] everything for the love of his life,’ he shared. This critical duality is, Arrey maintains, the heart of Alphonse. ‘For me,’ he went on, ‘one of the more complex things in the interpretation of this rôle is to be able to maintain his core temperament—as a king—alongside the shades of the man in love, vulnerable and betrayed.’ Arrey cited as an ideal example of this dichotomy Alphonse’s aria in Act Three, ‘Pour tant d’amour.’ Here, the king’s public persona and private emotions come into open conflict, passion warring against decorum. Baritones losing their lovers to tenors is as essential a part of opera as costumes and scenery, but in La favorite the stakes are higher than in many operatic amorous intrigues. The opera’s outcome is determined, of course, but Arrey is a singer adept at credibly giving Alphonse the strength of a king and the suavity of a lover.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor RANDALL BILLS, Fernand in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Crystal Pridmore, © by Randall Bills]O mon Fernand: Tenor Randall Bills, Fernand in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Crystal Pridmore, © by Randall Bills]

The ranks of tenors with the vocal wherewithal needed to sing Fernand are hardly over-populated, but even fewer are those singers whose work induces one to truly want to hear them sing the character’s ​difficult, high-flying music. Celebrated for his performances of bel canto heroes including Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola, Elvino in Bellini s La sonnambula, and Ernesto in Don Pasquale, native Californian tenor ​Randall Bills​​ is a Fernand with the skill set needed to soar, not solely survive, in the part. Like his colleagues in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of La favorite, Bills approaches his rôle as both a musical and an histrionic challenge. ‘I think Fernand and La favorite as a whole [have] a lot of ideas and issues relevant to today, perhaps dressed up in some fancy French (and later Italian),’ he opined. Likewise, he views Fernand not solely as a standard-issue operatic swain but also as a study in the delicate balance between desire and duty. ‘As tenors, we are always in love, it’s part of our territory,’ Bills stated, ‘but I feel [that], throughout the piece, Fernand is trying to put together this idea of being in love versus the religious [and] social constraints he’s accustomed to—something that’s not far removed from today. The ideal of “honor” prevents him from accepting his true feelings of love towards Léonor, but only after he discovers her status! Fortunately, in the end, love wins out: “Mon amour est plus fort,” but that resolution comes with a price. On top of all this, there’s the non-stop beautiful music propelling these dramatic life moments forward before our very eyes and ears. That’s why people go to experience opera!’ The collisions of life-or-death situations with exquisite music are indeed among the most spellbinding attractions of opera, but how much more attractive they are when they are sung with the savvy of an artist like Bills.

IN PERFORMANCE: Mezzo-soprano KATE LINDSEY, Léonor de Guzmán in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Rosetta Greek, © by Kate Lindsey]La belle favorite: Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, Léonor de Guzmán in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Rosetta Greek, © by Kate Lindsey]

​​In the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, what interest La favorite has garnered has been sustained by a​ procession of eminent mezzo-sopranos who have sung the central rôle of Léonor, an honorable sorority including Ebe Stignani, Giuseppina Corbelli, Fedora Barbieri, Giulietta Simionato, Fiorenza Cossotto, Shirley Verrett, Dolora Zajick, Daniela Barcellona, Elīna Garanča, and Alice Coote​​​. Returning to Lisner Auditorium, where she sang Romeo in Washington Concert Opera’s 2014 performance of Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi [reviewed here], to sing Léonor in La favorite, ​mezzo-soprano ​Kate Lindsey​​ is uniquely qualified to chisel her name among those of the superlative Léonors past and present. In the seasons since her company début as Javotte in Massenet’s Manon in 2005, Richmonder Lindsey has been heard at the MET as one of the Three Ladies in Die Zauberflöte, a Wagnerian Norn and Rhinemaiden, and a wood sprite in Rusalka, but her artistic flair has shone most compellingly in travesti rôles like Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, Siébel in Faust, Stéphano in Roméo et Juliette, Nicklausse and the Muse in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, Tebaldo in Don Carlo, and Hänsel in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. Surveying her rightly-applauded turns in trousers, especially her Romeo for Washington Concert Opera, Lindsey ponders the contrasting responsibilities of portraying operatic heroes and heroines. ‘Well, as I’ve been preparing Léonor, I must be honest in saying that I haven’t considered the idea of singing the rôle any differently than I would have sung Romeo, outside of the fact that I have to remind myself to take some time to go through my closet and find a gown to wear before I depart for DC!’ she quipped. She then added, ‘I think if I considered this more closely, I would probably notice that I do make alterations in the way that I might approach a portamento or how I might consider my approach to the expression of the text. However, I am not conscious of the “gender” within that approach, truthfully, just as I’m really not conscious of trying to be more “manly” when I sing or play trouser rôles. I know I do make adjustments based on the gender of the character, but I don’t consider it on a conscious level, if that makes any sense.’ It is indicative of Lindsey’s commitment to her craft that she not only thinks deeply about creating individual characters but also expresses a wish that her thoughts about doing so are intelligible! ‘Rather than think in terms of gender,’ she continued, ‘I tend to prefer to think in terms of what is honest within the emotion of the text, along with, certainly, the musical intentions. For me, the music always signifies the heartbeat and subtext for the character, and I find the deepest expression emerges from this source. That being said, after ten months playing trouser rôles, it will be nice to wear a dress on stage again!’ The adage that the clothes make the man was likely no less applicable at the Fourteenth-Century Castilian court than it is today, but it is the voices that make Donizetti’s La favorite: with Kate Lindsey, whichever frock she selects from her closet, at the center of a cast of singers for whom bel canto is not a chapter in a vocal primer but a way of life, these voices promise to make this La favorite an event that, 175 years ago, would have brought comfort and sadly uncommon happiness to its disconsolate composer.


Washington Concert Opera’s performance of La favorite begins at 7:00 PM on Friday, 4 March 2016, at Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st Street NW, on the campus of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. To purchase tickets for the performance, please visit Washington Concert Opera’s ticketing website or phone the Box Office at 202.364.5826.