Opera Rara’s Donizetti in the 1830s is partly the conclusion of its 50th anniversary celebrations and partly a survey of an important period in the life of Gaetano Donizetti, a composer who has been one of the company’s mainstays across the years. It’s also an excuse to remaster three of its classic recordings, which, thanks to a line-up of outstanding soloists and judicious choice of repertoire makes this a set well worth the collector’s time and money.
The 1830s saw Donizetti at the height of his popularity in Italy shortly before he decided to switch his focus to the conquest of Paris. In Il Diluvio Universale (1830) we find him trying to do something a little different by adding a dash of bel canto romance to the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. Dubbed an azione tragico-sacra, it’s a fusion of opera and oratorio. Six years later, L’Assedio di Calais (1836) contains some of the composer’s loveliest melodies and richest ensemble writing in a historical bodice ripper set during the 100 Year’s War that leans stylistically towards his upcoming French period.
Perhaps most remarkable is Ugo Conte di Parigi (1832), a substantial masterpiece that simply failed to take off but one that finds Donizetti in experimental mode with a score that focuses on duets and ensemble instead of the more usual solos. An effective – if torrid – tale of jealousy, revenge, and medieval dynastic politicking, in this reviewer’s opinion, it’s one of his very finest and most unfairly neglected operas.
Recorded in 2005, Il Diluvio Universale features four singers who were Opera Rara regulars at the time, all of them in fine voice. Mirco Palazzi sings Noè (Noah) with rich, warm authority with Colin Lee displaying his bel canto credentials as the villainous Cadmo, Majella Cullagh at her lyrical best as his tormented wife Sela (who chokes to death attempting to curse the Lord), and Manuela Custer as Sela’s slippery confidant, Ada. The plot – which is nearly all non-biblical subplot – fills the time between Noah’s warning and the concluding downpour but it affords plenty of opportunities for vocal and dramatic display. Giuliano Carella has the measure of a score which, although not one of Donizetti’s most consistent, has some lovely things, especially Ada’s charming Sarà lieve il mio tormento and Sela’s showstopping cabaletta, Perchè nell’alma.
L’Assedio di Calais hails from 1988 and has an all-star cast that includes Christian du Plessis in firm, sympathetic and touching voice as Eustachio, the Mayor of Calais whose town is under siege from the tyrannical English King Edward III (this is pro-French propaganda, remember). Nuccia Focile as Eustachio’s wife Eleonora and Della Jones as his hot-headed son Aurelio get many of the score’s finest moments, their voices entwining in a series of ravishing bel canto duets. In a punchy reading, David Parry brings out all of the score’s Verdian drama and musical pageantry which, catering for the French taste, includes patriotic choruses and a ballet. Both orchestra and chorus are exemplary.
When Opera Rara recorded Ugo, Conte di Parigi at London’s Henry Wood Hall in July 1977 it was one of the company’s first serious forays into the studio. The soloists included Della Jones in her first of what would be many recordings for the label singing the young French king, Luigi V, Eiddwen Harrhy as his mother Emma, Janet Price as his fiancé Bianca and a young Yvonne Kenny as her sister Adelia. Maurice Arthur was cast as Ugo, the conflicted Count of Paris and former Regent with Christian du Plessis as the embittered Folco d’Angiò. The casting represented a transition from one Opera Rara Golden Age to another in what is two dream teams for the price of one. It’s a thrilling ride – just listen to the vocal refulgence and sheer chutzpah of the young Jones, the sensitivity and dramatic experience of Price, or the nimble brilliance of Kenny. The company really came up trumps to produce a ground-breaking recording with outstanding forces beautifully managed by Alun Francis.
As for the remastering, by 2005 Opera Rara was pretty experienced in the studio, so Il Diluvio Universale sounds much as it did originally (i.e. good). L’Assedio di Calais benefits from a little greater resonance and a touch more space around the voices. The original recording of Ugo Conte di Parigi had a few problems of audio congestion and here comes up best of all with improved sound and most of the vocal distortion tamed.
Spread over seven discs, this trio of overlooked gems can be thoroughly recommended for all lovers of fine singing.
Works: Il Diluvio Universale, Ugo Conte di Parigi, L’Assedio di Calais
Performers: London Philharmonic Orchestra, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Giuliano Carella, Alun Francis, David Parry
Label: Opera Rara 9293810012 (7CD)