★★★☆☆ Donizetti’s French favourite at La Fenice boasts fine singing but a misguided production.

Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas, Adelaide
July 24, 2016

The dramatic climax of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera La Favorita (1840) comes at the end of Act III, when Fernand, a novice turned soldier, discovers that his newly-wedded wife, Léonor de Guzman, is the mistress of Alphonse XI of Castile; dishonoured, he confronts the king, and breaks his sword across his knee. Both swords and Spain are missing from La Fenice’s recent production, broadcast in Australian cinemas. The first performance of the original French version in Venice, rather than the more usual Italian translation, should have been cause for celebration. 

La Favorita was one of Donizetti’s most popular operas: an elegant tale of passion and religion in mediaeval Spain which clocked up nearly 700 performances in Paris alone by the end of the 19th century. The score, pieced together from the aborted L’ange de Nisida, is one of Donizetti’s finest. Each number is memorable, without any of the empty note-spinning to which even his best Italian operas were prey. It is, as La Fenice’s website described it, “an extraordinary grand-opéra, with outstanding arias, lavish sets and ballet”. 

Those outstanding arias were certainly there. Donizetti, a master at writing for the voice, gave each principal a chance to shine. Veronica Simeoni delivers a dramatic rendition of Léonor’s O mon Fernand, a famous concert item for mezzo-soprani. In the role of Fernand, American tenor John Osborn has two plaintive arias: Un ange, une femme inconnue in the first act and Ange si pur in the last.

The outstanding singer of the production, with his suave phrasing and clear diction, is Vito Priante, who recently appeared as Dandini in Opera Roma’s Cenerentola. His Alphonse is the iron fist in the velvet glove, and his Jardins de l’Alcazar mixes elegance, passion and menace.

Anyone expecting lavish sets, however, would be disappointed. Taking a cue from the ‘Planet of the Apes’ Rigoletto (Munich, 2005) and various science-fiction Parsifals, director Rosetta Cucchi has decided to set La Favorita in the far future. And it doesn’t work. Her production is supposedly set in a post-atomic future, where a superior race controls humanity. Women are incubators, without feelings, passions, free will or the possibility to decide whom to love. Léonor rediscovers her feelings and recovers her own identity.

Like many modern stagings, this has to be explained to make any sense. Without the director’s notes, it merely looks bizarre, like bad early-1980s sci-fi. The monks at the monastery of Santiago de Compostela have green hair, worship a glowing triangle and place containers of greenery in metal safes. Fernand (John Osborn) sings his cavatina to a clump of spinach. The gardens of the Alcázar palace in Seville look like a gigantic Evian water bottle. Where are the avenues of sycamores under which Alphonse likes to wander? Where are the flowers and gold of the court? The document making Fernand a captain is a handful of dust, while the papal bull excommunicating Alphonse and Léonor is a purple flower in a vat. The ballet is half floor-show, half snuff; instead of a charming divertissement, the ballerinas suffocate and die.

Worse, this update is only on the surface. The dialogue and characters place the work firmly in 14th-century Spain. Alphonse XI may be part Ming the Merciless, part cyborg, with a robotic arm and thigh-high leather boots, but he’s still a historical king (1311-1350) who —as he tells La Fenice’s audience – has defeated the kings of Morocco and Grenada at the battle of Talifa. His court is made up of Spanish grandees, and he appoints Fernand count of Zamora and marquis of Montreal. Léonor is another historical character: Eleanor de Guzmán (1310-1351), mother of Henry II of Castile.

What’s on stage doesn’t match the libretto. When Fernand visits Léonor on the Isla de Léon, he should be blindfolded. This is explicit in the dialogue; why, he asks, are his eyes blindfolded each day that he visits this place? Here, he isn’t blindfolded; the girls are the ones who can’t see, their heads muffled in sheets, like refugees from a Magritte painting.  When they should be dancing and singing prettily, they lie motionless on rocks. Towards the end of the opera, when Léonor should be disguised in a “holy robe”, she appears wearing a trouser-suit.

Although the staging is drab, pretentious and often ridiculous, the music is first-rate and would have been better served than by this silly production. Fortunately, the principals’ bel canto singing and the intrinsic drama and inspiration of one of Donizetti’s most tuneful scores make this a musically satisfying performance.

Donizetti’s La Favorita plays at Palace Cinemas until July 27


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