GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): La favorite—Kate Lindsey (Léonor de Guzmán), Randall Bills (Fernand), Javier Arrey (Alphonse XI), John Relyea (Balthazar), Joélle Harvey (Inès), Rolando Sanz (Don Gaspar); Washington Concert Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Antony Walker, conductor [Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., USA; Friday, 4 March 2016]
It might never be deduced from its lamentably few appearances in the world’s major opera houses in recent seasons that La favorite is one of Gaetano Donizetti’s finest scores. Composed in fulfillment of a commission from the Paris Opéra, an offer that any ambitious composer could hardly refuse, La favorite was in part adapted from the never-performed L’ange di Nisida, replacing the aborted Le duc d’Albe. Premièred at the Académie Royale de Musique on 2 December 1840, by a cast headed by mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz, whose reign as prima donna of both the Opéra and its manager, Léon Pillet, may have played at least a small part in the demise of Le duc d’Albe, the heroine of which was written for a higher voice, and the famous tenor Gilbert Duprez, La favorite solidified Donizetti’s reputation in the French capital, his home since an irreconcilable feud with the Neapolitan censors prompted him to turn his back on his native Italy. Despite the advocacy of singers as gifted as Giulietta Simionato, Fiorenza Cossotto, and Shirley Verrett, the appreciation that La favorite rightfully garnered in the Nineteenth Century has not persisted in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. Last heard at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1978, the opera has been best served in recent years by concert performances, including Opera Orchestra of New York outings in 1975 with Shirley Verrett, Alfredo Kraus, and Pablo Elvira and in 2003 with Jennifer Larmore, Gregory Kunde, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky; a 1989 Wiener Konzerthaus presentation with Agnes Baltsa, Kraus, and Paolo Gavanelli; a previous Washington Concert Opera showing in 1991 with Florence Quivar, Vinson Cole, and Christopher Robertson; the 2014 Salzburger Festspiele account with Elīna Garanča, Juan Diego Flórez, and Ludovic Tézier; and 2015’s Bel Canto at Caramoor offering with Clémentine Margaine, Santiago Ballerini, and Stephen Powell. Compared with recorded souvenirs of these performances, Washington Concert Opera’s 2016 performance in Lisner Auditorium was finer than any of them. Opera lovers’ affection for the genre is sustained by those gloriously few occasions when every aspect of a performance excels. In the past several decades, aficionados have learned to subsist on very meager diets of memorable performances. This La favorite was a gluttonously fulfilling experience for ears and hearts that hunger for genuine bel canto.
Written by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz, the libretto of La favorite examines collisions of regal authority, the power of the Church, and individual emotions in the piquant setting of Fourteenth-Century Castile. Alphonse XI, King of Castile, is a archetypical Latin lover, a playboy whose amorous appetite is not quenched by the attentions of his consort, the daughter of Balthazar, superior of the monastery of the Order of Santiago de Compostela. The King keeps as his preferred mistress—voilà, la favorite—Léonor de Gusmán, a beautiful lady of the court whose fervor at prayer has been noticed by Fernand, a postulant in the monastery who eventually abandons his ecclesiastical intentions, accepts a commission in Alphonse’s army procured for him by Léonor, wins royal favor in battle, and claims as his reward from his sovereign Léonor’s hand in marriage—a hand given with the knowledge of everyone except Fernand that her other hand remains firmly grasped by the King. Fernand rejoices at being granted his wish to marry Léonor without knowing of her liaison with Alphonse: Léonor’s confidante Inès, dispatched before the wedding ceremony to reveal Léonor’s past, having been arrested before communicating the crucial information, Fernand pledges himself to a woman he does not truly know and who believes that she is accepted and loved despite her transgressions. Such a plot can be difficult to sort out in staged performances, and concert presentations can make it even more incomprehensible for listeners, especially those without good French—or, more frequently in the case of this opera, Italian. The atmosphere established by the efforts of all participants in Washington Concert Opera’s La favorite lent the performance a strong dramatic profile, elucidating plot elements despite erratic interactions among the principals. The singers’—soloists and choristers—generally very good diction was advantageous. Concert performances of operas often provide opportunities to more intimately savor scores’ musical qualities without visual distractions, but this La favorite in concert was more histrionically effective than many fully-staged productions of familiar works manage to be.
The leadership of Washington Concert Opera’s Artistic Director and Conductor Antony Walker reliably brings the excitement of staged opera to the concert setting, never more so than in this performance of La favorite. His work with Pinchgut Opera in his native Australia has revealed the stylistic versatility of his conducting, but his appearances with Washington Concert Opera, with which company his repertoire encompasses lesser-known scores by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, and Richard Strauss, have confirmed that he has a special affinity for bel canto, spotlighting the inherent elements of bel canto as much in Strauss’s Guntram as in Rossini’s Semiramide and Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi. In Walker’s hands, the kinship between La favorite and Verdi’s mature style was particularly apparent. Donizetti’s music for Alphonse XI, the King of Castile, would dovetail perfectly with Verdi’s music for the Conte di Luna in Il trovatore, and Fernand’s high-centered vocal lines might be uttered just as convincingly by Henri in Les vêpres sicilienne. Balthazar’s scenes might have been cut from the same cloth as similar episodes in La forza del destino and Don Carlos. Without applying pressure greater than the music can withstand, Walker’s approach made Donizetti as much a peer of Verdi, Ponchielli, and Boito as of Rossini and Bellini, and the lesson in this is unmistakably legitimized by the composers’ bodies of work. Rodolfo’s ‘Quando le sere al placido’ in Verdi’s Luisa Miller is a close relative of Fernand’s ‘Ange si pur,’ and what is la Cieca’s ‘Voce di donna’ in Ponchielli’s La gioconda if not bel canto? Walker’s tempi were consistently appropriate for music and musicians, and he enhanced the continuity of the score by refusing to linger over ‘purple’ passages. Every emotion, gleeful or doleful, was given its due but not allowed to dominate unless its domination was clearly Donizetti’s intention. The circumstances of the company’s performances prohibit extensive periods of rehearsal, but such was Walker’s commitment—and the commitment that he inspired in his colleagues on the Lisner Auditorium stage—that this La favorite sounded like the culmination of a lifetime of study and preparation.
Under Walker’s guidance, the quality of the playing by the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra continues to improve, the musicians’s slightly rough-edged account of the Ouverture’s opening Larghetto smoothing to a well-integrated, exciting account of the Allegretto mosso. The Act Two ballet, de rigueur in a score commissioned by the Opéra, was omitted from Washington Concert Opera’s performance, but plentiful opportunities for orchestral glory remained. There were a few very small mistakes and instances of imperfect ensemble, but the playing mostly set and adhered to a high standard. The horns that introduced Léonor’s celebrated ‘O mon Fernand’ were commendably sure of intonation, and harpist Eric Sabatino’s playing was always heard with pleasure. Among the sometimes thin-sounding strings, principal cellist Gita Ladd’s spirited rallying of her section remains a marvel: even her pizzicato playing is emotionally charged. As the Santiago de Compostela organist in Act Four, Joel Ayau phrased his music with bel canto sensibility.
La favorite et ses hommes: (from left to right) Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Léonor, tenor Randall Bills as Fernand, Artistic Director and Conductor Antony Walker, baritone Javier Arrey as Alphonse, tenor Rolando Sanz as Don Gaspar, and bass John Relyea as Balthazar in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite in Lisner Auditorium, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]
Prepared by Assistant Conductor and Chorus Master Bruce Stasyna, the ladies and gentlemen of the Washington Concert Opera Chorus sang with potency and impressive balance. The men intoned the Andante introduction in Act One, ‘Pieux monastère, de ton sanctuaire que notre prière monte vers les cieux,’ expansively, and the ladies were luminous in the scene with Inès, sounding aptly girlist in ‘Rayons dorés, tiède zéphyre, de fleurs parez ce doux séjour.’ In both the Act Three finale and the first scene of Act Four, the dramatic force of the choral singing was gripping. Their accounts of ‘Frères, creusons l’asile où la douleur s’en dort’ and ‘Que du Très-Haut la faveur t’accompagne,’ the latter sung from the wings as Donizetti stipulated, were deeply poignant. Choral music plays a very important part in La favorite, and the success of this performance was considerably influenced by the choristers’ skillful contributions.
Interpreting the part of Don Gaspar, an officer in service to Alphonse, tenor Rolando Sanz acquitted himself expertly, his intuitive mastery of Donizetti’s style evident even in his character’s declamatory lines. Considering the quality of Sanz’s instrument, it was atypically regrettable that Donizetti and his librettists did not give Don Gaspar an aria. This talented tenor made the most of all that his character had to do, however, his voice ringing heroically—no whimpering character tenor, he!—in the scene with Alphonse at the start of Act Two. Sanz proclaimed Don Gaspar’s dramatically portentous lines in the Act Two finale with the machismo of a world-class Pollione. Of similar quality was his execution of his music in the Act Three finale. Sanz’s voice was always audible in ensembles, and even in the concert setting he was the smug, insinuating courtier to the life. Few operatic courtiers match their machinations with such firm, focused singing. It is too much to expect a Don Gaspar to sound as though he might respectably sing Fernand should circumstances necessitate it, but Sanz was one who seemed more than up to the task.
As Léonor’s confidante Inès, beautiful soprano Joélle Harvey enlivened the otherwise dark drama with singing as radiant as her smile. In her Act One scene with the young ladies of Alphonse’s court, she voiced ‘Rayons dorés, tiède zéphyre, de fleurs parez ce doux séjour’ with girlish glee, unleashing a splendid top B♭ in the cadenza. Then, her ‘Doux zéphyr, sois-lui fidèle’ wafted the fragrances and warmth of spring through the chilly auditorium, the spot-on accuracy of her pitch complemented by well-supported projection. She performed her part in the Act Two finale with poise and tireless assurance above the stave. As much a victim of Alphonse’s jealous cruelty as Léonor and Fernand, Harvey’s Inès was as good-natured and golden-voiced a champion of illicit love as Donizetti and the Washington audience could have hoped to hear in the rôle.
At the opposite end of the vocal and dramatic spectrum, the Balthazar of bass John Relyea pronounced the teachings and dictates of the Church with thundering tones that scorched the air with fire and brimstone. In the first scene of Act One, Relyea declaimed ‘Ne vas-tu pas prier avec eux?’ with gravitas, and his handling of Balthazar’s stern counseling of Fernand in the Allegro duet drew from him an imposing ‘Toi, mon fils, ma seule espérance.’ The bass’s voice relayed the wills of God and Pope in the finales of Acts Two and Three with the unanswerable authority of a man personally acquainted with both the Holy Spirit and the Holy Father. Welcoming Fernand into the monastic brotherhood at the start of Act Four, Relyea’s Balthazar assumed a paternal benevolence that shone in his singing of ‘Les cieux s’emplissent d’étincelles.’ Hearing Relyea’s portrayal, utterly solid throughout the part’s two-octave range, it is interesting to note how often Balthazar is easily ignored by recorded Alphonses. Relyea’s emphatic, smoldering singing could not be ignored by King or commoners, but who could have wanted to close his ears to such an electrifying performance of great music?
Le roi et ses plus belles dames: (from left to right) Soprano Joélle Harvey as Inès, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Léonor, and baritone Javier Arrey as Alphonse in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite in Lisner Auditorium, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]
Baritone Javier Arrey endowed the throne of Castile in this La favorite with a young, virile Alphonse XI whose vocalism was as handsomely chiseled as his visage. Among high-octane colleagues, he dominated Act Two, phrasing with distinction and respecting Donizetti enough to make an honorable effort at the trill asked of him. Arrey dispatched the libidinous King’s Larghetto aria ‘Léonor! Viens, j’abandonne Dieu, mon peuple et ma couronne’ and cabaletta ‘Léonor, mon amour brave’ with contrasting sensuality and swagger, his easy top Es and Fs ricocheting through the auditorium like musket balls. He and his Léonor blended their voices stirringly in their Larghetto duet, ‘Léonor, Léonor, tais-toi,’ and his vitriolic singing in the Act Two finale was galvanizing. To the trio with Léonor and Fernand, ‘Fernand de votre amour, Madame, vient de me faire ici l’aveu,’ Arrey brought the bemused confidence of royal prerogative, his voice radiating offended pride. A noticeably softer heart pulsed at the core of Alphonse’s Act Three aria ‘Pour tant d’amour ne soyez pas ingrate,’ the baritone revealing the soul of the man rather than the persona of the King. In the Act Three finale, Arrey depicted a touchingly wounded, suddenly frightened monarch on the brink of collapse: denounced by Rome, abandoned by his lover, and mocked by his court, he was a Mediterranean Macbeth stained by sin. Minimizing the significance of a few suspect pitches and moments of compromised tonal quality, Arrey’s performance was both pompous and poetic—and, most winningly, sung with style and nuance.
La favorite et le malheureux: Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Léonor (left) and tenor Randall Bills as Fernand (right) in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite in Lisner Auditorium, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]
Tall and as attractive in white tie and tails as a fair-haired Tony Curtis, tenor Randall Bills was a boyish, earnest Fernand who sang with heartwarming expressivity. In a rôle created by Gilbert Duprez, credited as having been the first tenor to publicly unveil the now-expected ut de poitrine, Bills unsurprisingly faced high tessitura, but his voice retained its youthful bloom to the top of the range. In Fernand’s Larghetto cavatine in Act One, ‘Un ange, une femme inconnue,’ he managed the ecstatic rise to top C♯ without strain, but the most gratifying aspects of his singing were his smooth, clear timbre and impeccable breath control. In the duet with Balthazar, his exclamation of ‘Mon père, je l’aime!’ soared with lovesick sincerity, and he subsequently greeted Inès with a believably awestruck ‘Gentille messagère et nymphe si discrète.’ Finally united with his beloved Léonor, her identity still withheld from him, ‘Pour toi des saints autels j’ai brisé l’esclavage’ poured from him like lava, his vocalism igniting one of Donizetti’s most incendiary duets. Bills gave an understated performance of the martiale aria ‘Oui, ta voix m’inspire,’ its sentiments being in his hands a statement of very private resolve. The first scene of Act Three was defined by Bills’s affectionately-phrased utterance of ‘Me voici donc près d’elle,’ his urgent, athletic singing in the trio with Léonor and Alphonse and the act’s finale surging with emotion and musicality. Hesitating before taking his final vows as a brother in the fraternity of Santiago de Compostela in Act Four, the tenor’s Fernand voiced ‘Dans un instant, mon frère’ with humility. Like the Duca’s ‘La donna è mobile’ in Rigoletto and Rodolfo’s ‘Che gelida manina’ in La bohème, it is Fernand’s C-major Larghetto aria ‘Ange si pur, que dans un songe’ for which audiences eagerly wait in La favorite, and Bills’s performance of the piece, one of Donizetti’s most inspired arias for tenor, fulfilled the expectation engendered by his effective singing throughout the evening. Shaping the aria with obvious mastery of bel canto, he faithfully observed Donizetti’s dynamic marking by taking the famous top C in genuine voix mixte, sustaining the tone beautifully and with the softness requested by the composer. In the harrowing final duet with the dying Léonor, he seemed transformed by ‘Ses pleurs, sa voix jadis si chère portent le trouble dans mes sens,’ his coldness towards his one true love thawed in an instant. This was a Fernand whose suggestion that his fellow monks’ prayers for the repose of Léonor’s soul would on the following day be lifted in requests of intercession for his own seemed inevitable: having borne too much, one could virtually feel the sensitive young man’s heart breaking. Particularly in early scenes, Bills’s gestures revealed nervousness, but the thoughtful young artist’s preparation and innate stylishness prevailed. Further experience will undoubtedly increase his comfort in the rôle, but few of even the most acclaimed Fernands have sung the music so securely and serenely.
After her début at the Opéra in 1837, Rosine Stoltz was frequently compared to one of the most popular singers in Paris, the sui generis Cornélie Falcon. Acclaimed for performances of rôles composed by Rossini for Isabella Colbran, as well as Falcon parts like Rachel in Halévy’s La Juive and Valentine in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Stoltz was admired for the excellent quality of her voice throughout its wide range and the dramatic verisimilitude of her characterizations, attributes that likely made her Léonor de Gusmán a memorable portrayal. The same praise can be justifiably directed at mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, whose Léonor for Washington Concert Opera was a spectacular junction of singer and rôle. In her Act One duet with Fernand, Lindsey caressed the line and cajoled her Fernand with a bewitching ‘Mon idole, mon idole, Dieu t’envoie.’ Her singing in the Act Two duet with Alphonse was better still, the bitterness that flooded her enunciation of ‘Dans vos palais, ma pauvre âme soupire’ altering the mood of the scene and of the opera as a whole. Her voice rocketed through the tricky writing in the Act Two finale. After enduring crippling shame in the trio with Fernand and Alphonse, depicted by Lindsey with unaffected dignity, Léonor’s majestic solo scene is the centerpiece of Act Three and the climax of the opera. Lindsey phrased the recitative ‘L’ai-je bien entendu?’ with great feeling, and her performances of the aria ‘O mon Fernand! tout les biens de la terre’ and cabaletta ‘Mon arrêt descend du ciel’ were galvanizing, a masterclass in the art of dramatic bel canto. Lindsey has flashing, unforced top Bs, used sparingly and to great effect, and her upper register was on sterling form throughout the performance, not least in the difficult Act Three finale. Entering in Act Four, Lindsey delivered ‘Fernand! Fernand! pourrai-je le trouver?’ with a voice already touched by death, and her piano singing of ‘Fernand, imite la clémence du ciel à qui tu t’es lié’ in the final duet was ravishingly plaintive. When singing quietly, Lindsey's tones sporadically lost focus, and her cautious management of vocal registers, commendably maintaining head resonance in the interest of preserving the line, led to a few moments of awkwardness at the bottom of the range. Like Bills, however, she reduced minor imperfections to immateriality with a performance that, taken as a whole, qualified her as a Léonor worthy of the legacy of Simionato, Cossotto, and Verrett.
It is never easy to explain why some of a composer’s operas enjoy enduring success while others of equal or greater quality languish in relative obscurity. For Donizetti’s La favorite, the argument is often made that the opera is neglected because there are no singers active today who are capable of doing justice to the score. Washington Concert Opera’s performance delightfully disavowed that notion. Are audiences’ collective attention spans too brief to enable exploration beyond the handful of Donizetti’s operas that remain in the standard repertory? Do today’s listeners fail to respond to the tragedy of La favorite as readily as Nineteenth-Century observers must have done? Whichever reasons are most valid for explaining the infrequency with which La favorite adorns the world’s stages, performances of the prowess of Washington Concert Opera’s traversal of the magnificent score are worth waiting for.
Receiving thanks for a job well done: (from left to right) Bass John Relyea (Balthazar), mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey (Léonor), tenor Randall Bills (Fernand), Artistic Director and Conductor Antony Walker, baritone Javier Arrey (Alphonse), soprano Joélle Harvey (Inès), and tenor Rolando Sanz (Don Gaspar) in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite in Lisner Auditorium, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]