08 November 2013

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti – BELISARIO (N. Alaimo, J. El-Khoury, R. Thomas, C. Roberts, A. Miles; Opera Rara ORC49)

 Gaetano Donizetti: BELISARIO (Opera Rara ORC49)

GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Belisario – N. Alaimo (Belisario), J. El-Khoury (Antonina), R. Thomas (Alamiro), C. Roberts (Irene), A. Miles (Giustiniano), J. Sporsén (Eudora), P. Hoare (Eutropio), E. Price (Eusebio), M. Bundy (Ottario), D. Jeffery (Centurion); BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Sir Mark Elder [Recorded at BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, in October 2012; Opera Rara ORC49; 2CD, 124:53; Available from Opera Rara, Presto Classical, and all major music retailers]

Thoroughly, memorably satisfactory performances of bel canto operas are as rare today as honest politicians—and as welcome when they unexpectedly appear.  Not so many seasons have passed since the Lucias of Beverly Sills or Dame Joan Sutherland could be partnered on any given night with the Edgardos of Carlo Bergonzi, Nicolai Gedda, Sándor Kónya, or Richard Tucker.  Perhaps they were not Pastas or Rubinis, but these singers knew and loved bel canto and possessed both the requisite techniques and sufficient respect for the music to dedicate themselves to delivering stylish performances.  There are excellent bel canto singers active today, of course, but instances in which groups of them are assembled in casts for Bellini or Donizetti operas are strangely few.  Are an Adalgisa with no coloratura and a strangulated Roberto Devereux really considerably less expensive for an opera company than good ones?  Bel canto suffers more in the 21st Century than ever before, it seems, from the supposition that this repertory requires star singers in order to be viable: worry first about filling seats and then about meeting the demands of the music, and if one of these aims must be sacrificed it is better to sing poorly to a full house.  The history of Opera Rara proves, however, that, when sung not just competently but enthusiastically and devotedly, bel canto repertory both is a star in its own right and creates stars of its own accord.  Any number of sopranos can get through a rôle like Donizetti’s Maria de Rudenz, but only a mistress of the idiom like Nelly Miricioiu can truly make the part her own, and Opera Rara’s studio recording gave her the ideal setting in which to offer a masterclass in dramatic bel canto singing.  The talented team at Opera Rara have now given this same gift to Donizetti’s Belisario, bringing together a cast of today’s most talented bel canto singers and crafting a performance that sweeps the boards, artistically and technically.

The technical strengths of this recording arise from the work of Opera Rara’s engineers, Neil Pemberton, Drew Leckie, and Susan Thomas.  They faced a daunting assignment: sonic excellence is the expectation rather than the exception with Opera Rara recordings, but the best of their skills were engaged in producing a dynamically wide-ranging recording that benefits from near-ideal balance and a natural, slightly dry acoustic that credibly replicates the sound of a small theatre.  As has also become customary for Opera Rara releases, Belisario is accompanied by an article by Jeremy Commons by which the attentive reader will be both educated and entertained.  Even among Donizetti’s lesser-known operas, Belisario is something of an enigma, its musically uneven but dramatically innovative score largely overlooked during the Donizetti revival of the 1950s and ‘60s.  The opera’s resurgence in the 20th Century was due to interest in the lead soprano rôle by Mara Zampieri and, most significantly, Leyla Gencer.  Compared with Anna Bolena and Lucia di Lammermoor, Belisario is not a masterpiece, but the efforts of Opera Rara have often revealed that Donizetti’s ‘forgotten’ operas are finer scores than those of his less-remembered contemporaries—and, indeed, than those of subsequent generations that enjoy greater popularity.  Thus it is also with Belisario.  There are passages, even pages, of the opera that lack inspiration, but of how many composers’ scores except the mature operas of Mozart can that not be said?  There are many pages in Belisario that rival the best of Donizetti’s work, however, and there is an obvious effort by all of the personnel involved with this recording to ensure that the score receives uniform distribution of the deep trove of resources.  A listener would not expect a Violetta to sing haphazardly until reaching ‘Amami, Alfredo, amami quant’io t’amo’ and ‘Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core,’ her two great outpourings of melody, but many performances of bel canto operas do just that, taking flight only in the moments of greatest fame or distinction.  There are moments in Belisario when Donizetti’s genius is more apparent, but the levels of musical and dramatic execution in this recording are consistently high from beginning to end.

One of the finest if least-heralded theatrical conductors working today, Sir Mark Elder presides over this performance of Belisario with passion and precision.  His keen ear for rhythm provides a firm foundation for the performance, and the depth of his understanding of both the similarities and differences of the styles of the mature Donizetti and the young Verdi is evident.  In many ways, Belisario is a close relative of Nabucco, both in terms of the basic structure of the narrative and in the sharply-contrasted musical profiles of the characters.  Donizetti’s opera mostly lacks the contemporary political and religious subtexts of Nabucco but shares many of the complicated, ultimately unanswerable questions of Verdi’s work.  Maestro Elder shows a firm hand in guiding the development of Donizetti’s carefully-conceived thematic arcs, but he is also a confident, cordial friend to the singers.  Melodic lines are granted the flexibility that they need in order to expand organically without distorting the dramatic progression of scenes.  Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Maestro Elder’s conducting in this performance is the way in which be balances clean articulations of rhythmic figurations with seemingly effortless commands of dynamics, balance between orchestra and singers, and idiomatic phrasing of Italianate melodic lines.  Such accomplishments are far from effortless, of course, and Maestro Elder’s expert leadership contributes significantly to the success of this recording.  Led respectively by Renato Balsadonna and Tomo Keller, the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra also perform excellently, not least by responding so readily to Maestro Elder’s baton.  The BBC Singers evoke the grandeur of Imperial Byzantium with singing of compelling vigor.  The choristers are given nothing of the melodic fecundity of Nabucco’s ‘Va, pensiero sull’ari dorate,’ but the Senators’ Chorus in Part One, ‘Che mai sarà,’ is a stirring number, faintly resembling in its basic structure the Council Chamber Scene in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.  Whether plotting rebellion or decrying betrayal, the choristers maintain a sturdy, unstintingly musical presence throughout the performance.  The demands of Donizetti’s score find not one of the players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra unprepared, and the reliable quality of the orchestral playing further enhances the cumulative impact of the recording.

Another quality typical of Opera Rara releases (and sadly atypical of other labels’ recordings) is the uniformly high level of talent among the singers cast in supporting rôles.  Belisario is an opera in which there truly are no insignificant rôles, and even the unnamed Centurion comes forward in the penultimate scene with the critical news that Belisario has been mortally wounded in battle.  Thankfully, a singer as capable as Darren Jeffery is on hand to fill the Centurion’s lines with forceful tone befitting the gravitas of his statements.  Eutropio, duplicitous head of the Imperial guards and combatant for Antonina’s favor, and Eusebio, the warden of the Imperial prison, are sung with ringing tones by Peter Hoare and Edward Price.  Michael Bundy is a suitably martial Ottario, leader of the rebels, and Irene’s confidante Eudora is beautifully sung by Julia Sporsén.

The rôle of the Byzantine Emperor Giustiniano is sung by bass Alastair Miles, a frequent participant in Opera Rara projects and one of the most important exponents of bel canto singing in Britain.  In recent seasons, there were occasional signs of the effects of time and a rigorous career in Mr. Miles’s singing, but in this performance these traits are little in evidence.  Donizetti did not give Giustiniano a concerted aria, but Mr. Miles takes advantage of every opportunity offered him, infusing his pronouncements with focused, suitably regal tone.  Passages at neither the very top nor the bottom of the voice come as easily as in the past, but it is heartening to hear Mr. Miles again singing so well.

Irene is an usual seconda donna in that she, rather than Antonina, is the opera’s sympathetic female protagonist.  Subjected to the cruel workings of fate and her mother’s covert political manipulations, she suffers greatly and, in one of the defining characteristics of bel canto, in music of considerable beauty.  Irene’s scene with her blinded father in Act Two, culminating in the duet ‘Ah! se potessi piangere,’ is the emotional climax of the opera, the situation of the faithful daughter reunited with her humiliated father—so familiar from mythology and in opera—inspiring Donizetti to extraordinary heights of pathos and musical inspiration.  Camilla Roberts scales these heights imaginatively, phrasing with an audible understanding of the art of bel canto and shaping her performance with an effecting sense of womanly dignity.  Ms. Roberts’s Irene is a mercilessly put-upon woman but not one who lashes out in vengeful anger or who demurely accepts the hands she is dealt.  Indeed, Ms. Roberts proves as spirited in up-tempo passages as she is moving in more lyrical moments.  Neither her artistry nor her voice is more eloquently deployed than in the scene with Belisario, when Irene takes her wounded father under her protection.  Warmly feminine and secure throughout the performance, Ms. Roberts’s voice here takes on the slow-burning intensity of a heroine of Greek tragedy.  Ms. Roberts occasionally sounds cautious in approaching the top of her range, but the voice is full and lovely, and her singing is a credit to the performance.

Tenor Russell Thomas takes a rôle that could all too easily be a standard-issue operatic caricature—that of the child long lost but miraculously found at the most opportune time—and transforms it into a vocal and dramatic tour de force.  Even the scene in which, his Greek ancestry having been revealed, he is taken into his father’s household as a replacement for the missing son is managed without the slightest hint of parody.  Donizetti set the scene with absolute sincerity, of course, and Mr. Thomas performs his part in it accordingly.  It is obvious in every line that Mr. Thomas sings in this performance that his is a voice that should be heard in all of the world’s important opera houses.  In Alamiro’s aria and cabaletta that open Part Two, Mr. Thomas sings with virile security and brilliant tone that would be welcome in any of Donizetti’s operas; or, indeed, in any of Verdi’s.  Alamiro is not called upon for any great philosophical discourses, but he is a hero with an insightful nature, and Mr. Thomas’s performance glows with honesty and open-hearted emotion.  Keeping with the nature of the music, interpolated top notes are few, but Mr. Thomas’s excursions into his freely-produced upper register are thrilling.  Even very young singers without idiosyncrasies and mannerisms are rare today: Mr. Thomas impresses most by the unaffected simplicity of his singing.  This is not to suggest that Alamiro’s music is an easy sing, but the facility with which Mr. Thomas sings it is testimony to the well-schooled completeness of his technique.  In every scene in which he appears in Belisario, Mr. Thomas sings with an ideal combination of power and grace—an auspicious launch to what will hopefully prove a long and fruitful career before the microphones.

Also at the dawn of an especially promising recording career is soprano Joyce El-Khoury, who sings Antonina with a dramatic abandon that might seem old-fashioned to listeners accustomed to the anemic singing heard in so many recent performances of bel canto repertory.  Indeed, Ms. El-Khoury’s performance is refreshingly ‘old-fashioned’ in the sense of bringing to the rôle the kind of take-no-prisoners intensity that was a hallmark of Leyla Gencer’s singing of Antonina.  Bel canto leading lady she is, but a delicate songbird Antonina is not, and Ms. El-Khoury discloses at her first entrance that hers will be a performance that neglects none of the character’s less glamorous elements.  She also neglects none of Donizetti’s musical demands, filling her performance with stretches of wonderfully stylish singing.  Antonina makes her entrance with ‘Sin la tomba è a me negata,’ the first music of real distinction in the score, and Ms. El-Khoury makes it clear that Antonina’s emotions run hot.  First sung by Caroline Ungher, who also created Donizetti’s Parisina and Maria de Rudenz, Antonina is an intriguing figure whose influence, like that of Fricka in Die Walküre, is more felt than heard, her appearances being confined to Parts One and Three.  That she is so omnipresent in this performance is indicative of the strong impression made by Ms. El-Khoury’s singing.  Antonina’s final aria and cabaletta are blazingly sung, Ms. El-Khoury putting even Donizetti’s most demanding vocal writing at the service of her wide-eyed dramatic instincts.  Musically, Ms. El-Khoury encounters no challenge to which her technique is not equal.  The dark-amber timbre of her voice is very attractive, especially as the sunlit ascents of Donizetti’s melodic lines access her glowing upper register.  Like Klytämnestra, Antonina’s political ambitions are upset by the reappearance of a presumed-dead son, though Antonina presumably had no hand in her child’s fate (her hatred of her husband is inspired at least in part by her belief that their son was slain on his order), and destiny delivers one last blow by Belisario’s untimely death thwarting her quest for absolution.  It is perhaps misleading to suggest that Antonina is a ‘broken’ woman, but Donizetti gave her poised, beautiful music that complicates interpretations of the part as either a straightforward bel canto heroine or an evil villainess.  Ms. El-Khoury shares Leyla Gencer’s talent for emotionally-charged dramatic bel canto singing, and she manages to make Antonina an even more sympathetic figure than Gencer achieved in Venice and Bergamo, all while singing with formidably sure technique and controlled fire.

The title rôle receives from baritone Nicola Alaimo a performance of musical and dramatic potency.  Making his entrance into the opera in the manner of Rossini’s—or, even more spectacularly, Verdi’s—Otello, as the triumphant warrior returning to his native land, Belisario receives both from Donizetti and from Mr. Alaimo suitable pomp and circumstance.  Mr. Alaimo joins Mr. Thomas in a monumental account of the duet ‘Sul campo della gloria.’  Belisario’s disbelief and offended exasperation upon being accused and condemned echo Anna Bolena’s ‘Giudici…ad Anna,’ and Mr. Alaimo’s performance brims with barely-concealed rage.  In the scene in which the blinded Belisario is reunited with Irene, recalling the devotion of Antigone to Oedipus, Mr. Alaimo sings with tremendous feeling.  Dramatically, this scene foreshadows many similar scenes of life-altering interaction between parents and their children—or, in one instance, a would-be daughter-in-law—in the operas of Verdi: Rigoletto and Gilda, Germont and Violetta, Boccanegra and Amelia.  Musically, it is a testament to Donizetti’s genius that his music for Belisario and Irene inhabits the same exalted environment as that of Verdi for his celebrated familial confrontations.  Mr. Alaimo responds to Ms. Roberts’s example with long-breathed phrasing and an alert presentation of text.  Mr. Alaimo’s excellent diction is of great importance throughout the opera, and the naturalistic but unaffected manner in which he delivers both Belisario’s surprise at learning that Alamiro is his son and the character’s death scene is richly rewarding.  Mr. Alaimo’s voice is not extraordinarily beautiful like that of Giuseppe Taddei, who was one of the most notable exponents of the part in the 20th Century, but he proves a subtle, moving Belisario whose gifts for bel canto provide countless moments of gratifying singing.

During the past few seasons, a listener might be forgiven for having forgotten that bel canto both literally and figuratively means ‘beautiful singing.’  With the increasing focus on crowding the world’s stages with pretty faces regardless of the quality of the voices that pass through them, it is inevitable that the traditions of bel canto, which rely upon handsomeness of tone rather than attractiveness of figure, should suffer.  From that perspective, the operas espoused by Opera Rara’s initiatives are not as rare as the performance traditions they uphold.  More so than many of the works that hover in the peripheries of the repertories of the world’s opera houses today, Belisario is an opera that deserves to be heard on the most important stages and that deserved a recording of the highest possible quality.  Fulfillment of the former goal may remain unlikely, but Opera Rara’s efforts have produced a Belisario to be treasured by lovers of genuine bel canto.  Stylish bel canto singing may be fighting for its life in many theatres, but in Opera Rara’s projects and in the throats of Nicola Alaimo, Joyce El-Khoury, Russell Thomas, Camilla Roberts, and Alastair Miles it is alive and well.