Tag Archives: Donizetti

Enjoyable Don Pasquale

30 Jul

Glyndebourne’s Don Pasquale has returned for its fourth run – twice on tour and, now, twice the Festival. I saw the latest run on 30th July.

Mariame Clement’s production, backdated to a Chardin-ish 18th century is a cynical piece of work.  Malatesta is clearly having an affair with Norina and will also continue to do so after the marriage with Norina (unlike previous incarnations, she no longer runs off with him at the end).  I found myself disliking it very much at its last outing on the tour.  It didn’t seem so bad here – though I find the idea of Malatesta and Norina going into a bathtub pretty fully clothed a bit unlikely.   I’m not sure about the chorus as an audience.  Bits and pieces have been changed but, at this run, it seemed to get the piece generally about right – a cynical comedy where nobody comes out particularly well.  It’s clearly been built for the tour rather than the festival but the acting is strong and the performance held its own.  The audience enjoyed itself.

The cast was adequate.  Renato Girolami acts Pasquale rather well, though not quite Corbelli.  Vocally, he sounded under-powered but put the words across pretty well.  Andrew Stenson as Ernesto did a perfectly decent job but I can’t particularly imagine wanting to hear him in anything else. Andrey Zhilikhovsky acted a nasty, sinister, sexy Malatesta and sang pretty strongly.  It’s not the largest or most beautiful of voices, but he made a stylish Malatesta who certainly held the stage as the manipulator.

He was matched by Lisette Oropesa as Norina.  She struck me as having the biggest personality and a really attractive voice that was pretty much ideal for the role.  She sang very stylishly and gave a lot of pleasure with accurate coloratura and strong pointing of the words.  I’m not sure that she made Norina a particularly sympathetic character, but she probably isn’t.

Giacomo Sagripanti conducted an alert, performance.  The chorus was in splendid form and so was the LPO.  The performance zipped along at just the right speed and there was no question that I was watching one of the finest Italian comic operas even if I could imagine performances which were vocally a bit more accomplished and productions a bit less cynical.  It’s worth a visit.


Pia di Tolomei – not quite a masterpiece

11 Mar

After last year’s Il furioso nell’ Isola di San Domingo, English Touring Opera moved to another Donizetti rarity – Pia de’ Tolomei. It’s one of his late Italian operas, written for Venice to a libretto by Cammarano and based, rather loosely, on a passage in Dante. I went over to Hackney on 10th March to see the UK stage premiere.

It’s another Guelphs/Ghibellines sort of story. Pia’s family are Guelphs, but to try to achieve peace, she has been married to the Ghibelline, Nello. His brother, Ghino, is in love with her but takes advantage of an intercepted letter, which seems to show that she is seeing another man, to persuade Nello that she’s unfaithful. In fact, the letter is from her brother, Rodrigo, whom she is helping escape from her husband’s dungeon. Got it so far?

The first act sets up the position in a series of entrance arias and cabalettas leading to a finale where Rodrigo meets Pia, escapes through a secret passage and Nello is only just stopped from killing Pia and ending the opera an hour early.  I can understand why the Venetians were a bit disappointed with this: it doesn’t have quite the sense of scale or excitement that, say, that for Il furioso has, let alone, Act II of Lucia or Act III of Favorita.  Mind you, the duet for Pia and Rodrigo is gorgeous and the ensuing trio and stretta are perfectly good.

In the second act, the mistake is unravelled but not before Nello has been defeated in battle and had Pia poisoned – she dies urging peace.  There’s a rather good Verdian chorus opening the act for the Guelphs and then a splendid duet for Pia and Ghino where he repents.  He meets the defeated Nello with a group of hermits and confesses before he dies.  Nello dashes off to try to save Pia and arrives too late.  The final scene – a gorgeous aria for Pia turning into a duet for her and Nello – is the finest part of a good, solid, enjoyable evening.

The problem is that it doesn’t quite add up to a satisfying whole.  Donizetti originally wanted it to be a taut melodrama concentrating on the three leads.  When he arrived in Venice, however, he discovered that he had to expand the role of Rodrigo for a promising young mezzo (possibly the director’s mistress).  There are at least two excellent numbers for the role but nothing in the second act until the very end.  For Naples, he was required to have a happy ending and there were other bits and pieces of reworking.  This performance kept Rodrigo’s arias, added the chorus and kept the tragic ending. It’s still quite a short opera – less than two hours of music and at times it feels a bit perfunctory – and it’s hard to feel that it’s a forgotten masterpiece.

On the other hand, there is some super music: all of the arias of a high calibre and the duets in the second act for Pia and Ghino and Ghino and Nello are outstanding. As I’ve suggested, Donizetti saves his best for the last scene and the death of Pia and her reconciliation.  It’s touching, effective music and the characters are typically well drawn. It didn’t strike me as having anything of the originality of his later Paris operas but it’s still an effective and enjoyable evening, particularly for those of us who can’t really get enough Donizetti and wish people would explore things beyond Maria Stuarda.

James Conway’s production did the piece effectively enough. It was set on what looked like the set of one the other operas that they’re doing, turned round – all scaffold and rostra. Not exactly a delight for the eye, but it concentrated you on the characters and, since it didn’t look like anything in particular, worked fine for scenes set in the court, a dungeon and a swamp. Costumes were a bit of a mishmash but, again, did the trick. His direction was efficient, considerate of his actors and allowed you to follow the plot and the emotions. This isn’t meant to be patronising: clarity is an under-rated virtue in opera production and the obvious constraints of a low budget really didn’t spoil the enjoyment.  He played the opera for exactly what it was worth.

I thought there was some smashing singing. Elena Xanthoudakis was an outstanding Pia – she may not be Joan Sutherland, yet, but this was full bodied singing, accurate coloratura and she sang a really meltingly lovely last scene.  She can come back in Donizetti at any time.

Luciano Botelho as Ghino has a rather lighter tenor than you’d ideally like and the top notes were managed rather than easy – but they are quite high and there are a lot of them. He presented a credible figure. Grant Doyle was splendid as Nello – I think his voice suits Donizetti rather well and he conveyed the anger and mix of emotions really well. Catherine Carby was a very fine Rodrigo, making you wish that the role was longer. Piotr Lempa as a passing hermit, made a strong impression too.

John Andrews conducted – I thought he caught the style well and had the orchestra playing dramatically, alertly. The music came over well and the whole thing sounded like very high quality Donizetti indeed.

This, on paper, is just the sort of piece ETO shouldn’t be doing – a bel canto piece really needing singers and productions standards out of their range. In fact, they showed that it’s possible to make a convincing, enjoyable case for the opera without breaking their bank.  It’s well worth a visit.

Elisir at Opera North

4 Mar

Opera North’s L’elisir d’amore has always been one their happier productions and the latest revival, which I caught on 3rd March at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, proved fresh, alive and hugely enjoyable.

I’m fond of Elisir. It’s a beautifully human opera about character, with a gentle humour and real emotion which Donizetti charts wonderfully.  It’s a leisurely piece which gives the characters time to develop and this was what Daniel Slater’s excellent production caught.

He’s updated it. Adina owns a hotel, Nemorino is a waiter and there’s an assorted chorus of guest, police, a priest and a real doctor who is suitably upset by Dulcamara.  There are lots of nice, gentle jokes, plenty of colour and nothing to distract badly from the principal characters.  My only reservation comes with the fact that the curtain comes down to clear the stage in the middle of each act: it shouldn’t need to, particularly in Act II because there’s a nice momentum building up and this interrupts it.

Slater was back on hand to rehearse a bright young cast.  I loved the way he got the characters right: Belcore genuinely in love with Adina and she clearly regretting this from the beginning of Act II.  It’s neatly choreographed to just the right extent; Dulcamara has a a child assistant who manages to avoid entirely being irritating – easily the most successful assistant for him that I’ve seen in any production.  I don’t think you could ask for a more enjoyable production of it.

The cast is pretty good.  Jung Soo Yun struck me as someone to watch as Nemorino.  He has a lovely, Pavarotti-ish tenor which I thought he used with a lot of taste and confidence.  I’m not sure how he’d work in a larger theatre but this was intelligent, very beautiful singing and I thought he did Una furtiva lagrima really beautifully.

Gabriella Iştoc was a sympathetic Adina, intelligent and decent and you felt that this opera was a journey for her as much as for Nemorino.  Vocally, she was expressive, her voice is bright, clear and I thought that she did the series of duets with, again, good taste and understanding.

Duncan Rock is always watchable and his Belcore, a bit less exaggerated than usual gave you the sense, as I’ve suggested of someone who really cares for Adina.  He sang with a good sense of the style even though I suspect he’s more comfortable in Mozart and Britten.

Richard Burkhardt has a light-ish voice for Dulcamara, but he puts across the notes and the words really well and he’s a super actor.  His comic timing and range of expressions was perfect for the role.  Like all of them, it’s less exaggerated than usual and that’s no bad thing.  I loved his drinking the “elixir” himself before trying to get Adina in their Act II duet.

Fflur Wyn made a really attractive, positive Gianetta, singing really well – very strong casting here.  Chorus was in good form and seemed to be enjoying itself.  Tobias Ringhorn conducted and kept the piece moving.  I’ve heard more idiomatic Donizetti conducting in my time and smoother orchestral playing, but it did the job perfectly well.

It was sung in Italian which, I felt, was a shame.  While the Italian obviously fits the music, you lose the direct communication with the audience.  It was nice to hear Jung Soo Yun and Gabriela Iştoc but there are surely other English singers out there? The surtitles, I suppose, did the job.

A good, happy evening that kept me smiling and enjoying this gorgeous, funny, rather touching opera.

Premiere of Poliuto

21 May

I’m just back from the first night of Glyndebourne’s new production of Donizetti’s Poliuto – the British premiere of the Italian version.  I loved it.

It’s fascinating to compare the piece to Les Martyrs.  It’s more concise, a more human drama – the love triangle is more interesting here and you still get the strong sense of religious conflict.  The French one is longer, has a much greater role for the governor, Felix, than in the Italian version and there is, obviously, a greater sense of the public, though the difference here is not as great as I’d anticipated – there’s a very strong role for the chorus in this piece.  In a less strong performance the weaknesses in Cammarano’s libretto might be more apparent – Poliuto is out of the action for quite a lot of time after the first scene; you never get any sense that the evil high priest Callistene is in love with Paolina until she mentions it in the last scene and so a lot of the motivation for the second Act is a bit unclear.  Maybe Paolina’s conversion could be signaled a bit earlier.  And musically the French version is more ambitious, more spacious.

But there’s lots of glorious music here.  The arias are strong and well placed with great opportunities for all the main singers – Poliuto’s Act II aria is a really strong study of jealousy, and I thought that Severo’s entrance aria was among his most grateful baritone numbers.  The duets, particularly, enable the singers to strike sparks of each other.  I was particularly taken with the duet in Act II for Severo and Paolina and the final one for Poliuto and Paolina.  The finale to the second act is one of Donizetti’s strongest – another glorious sextet followed by a really exciting stretta.  I defy anyone to leave a performance without at least those two ringing in their ears.  This is Donizetti at his best and I felt that the Verdi of Aida and Don Carlos was not that far away.

Mariame Clément’s production struck me as outstandingly good.  She’s set it in a totalitarian state, probably in the 1930s, to judge by the costumes.  The sets are a set of massive blocks, on which videos are delicately projected to suggest location.  It feels like a fascist state and one where people are afraid.  She uses them really well to enable the more intimate scenes to be nicely downstage and to suggest different locations, even images.  There’s a fluidity about it – locations switch easily and she manages to get more out of scenes than you’d think possible.  In Severo’s entrance aria, she uses the silent chorus to suggest how his speech is really going, while he sings privately, to us, about his love for Paolina and it moves effortlessly in the next scene with Felice and Callistene.  In Callistene’s Act III aria about using the people for his ends, we suddenly see his soldiers dancing at a cafe with the unthinking population.  She doesn’t shrink from the viciousness of the state: this is a police state and you’re left in no doubt about the fate of the Christians in this society.  It works with the music and this struck me as a very classy staging indeed.

Provided that you don’t demand Callas and Corelli, this was musically hugely satisfying.  Enrique Mazzola had the piece absolutely under control and the LPO played their socks off for him.  He made you realise how good Donizetti is at suggesting atmosphere and finding the right instrument for the emotions.  He accompanied the singers really sensitively.  This was as fine a reading as Elder’s of the French version last year.

In the title role, Michael Fabbiano was very good indeed.  Perhaps he didn’t need to sing quite as loudly as he did early on but he seized on the anger and intensity of the emotions – a fascinating mixture of human jealousy and religious fervour.  His Act II aria was a highlight, as was the prison duet with Paolina.  Ana Maria Martinez doesn’t strike me as a natural bel canto singer and the voice has lost some of its sweetness since she sang Rusalka here, but there’s an intensity about her acting and a conviction about her singing that made this a really satisfying performance to watch and here.  You believed in the two of them in that final duet.

The discovery of the evening, however, was Igor Golovatenko as Severo.  Here is a really wonderfully schooled baritone who sang with outstanding style.  He has that great legato line that you need for Donizetti baritones and I imagine that he’ll also be a fabulous Luna, Posa and Belcore.  He understood what the role was about and conveyed the intensity of the man’s love for Paolina.  This was one of the most exciting baritone debuts here that I can recall.

At his curtain call, Matthew Rose seemed rather upset – easily the most graceless acknowledgement of applause that I’ve seen.  I thought he sang Callistene really well and suggested aptly the political manouevring.  As Nearco, Emanuele d’Aguanno was impressive.  The chorus sang and acted excellently.

I found this a wholly compelling, fascinating performance that rose above the cliches that people peddle about Donizetti – this was about politics and human emotion and this production conveyed a vision of the opera with absolute clarity and, for me, real success.  I hope Glyndebourne is planning a revival (or how about trying Les Martyrs so we can compare properly?) but, just in case they’re not, there are still tickets left, so I’d snap them up.

If you do, you’ll see that they’ve been playing about with the garden and have put up a rather ugly box of an art gallery.  New bits of garden never look their best in their first year and I’m not convinced that the rather camply baroque topiary yew plants quite fit into a garden that’s built on a grander scale, but the rose garden looks much more promising. Irrespective of that, this seemed to me to be one of the best Glyndebourne new productions for a while

Fascinating Furioso

14 Mar

Donizetti’s Il furioso all’ isola di San Domingo had its first professional performance in the UK in living memory at the Hackney Empire on 12th March by the wonderful English Touring Opera. The way in which this company mixes the popular with the worthwhile rarities is a source of constant amazement to me  Normally, this sort of piece would be the preserve of students or, possibly, an Opera Rara concert.  Here was a full staging with a really good cast.  My only query was over whether they needed to use the rather gawky title of The Wild Man of the West Indies.

It isn’t a neglected masterpiece, but the joy of the Donizetti revival is that it has shown how much worthwhile work there is that we don’t get to see and what a serious composer he is.  What struck me was the sense that Donizetti was still, 43 operas on, experimenting or at least approaching each with an open mind to their challenges. This wasn’t a simple soprano/tenor/baritone piece but a six hander of interesting characters in an opera about madness and reconciliation. Not everything in the opera works, but there is enough of value to make it well worth the occasional revival.

A particular joy was watching it blind, so to speak. I hadn’t looked up the plot beforehand nor tried to hear any of the music. Moreover, the lighting in the auditorium was too dim for me to read the plot so I was following it as it happened and I didn’t know how it would end. I recommend it to you, particularly now that surtitles help you follow the story. You appreciate the way in which Donizetti handled the work and how far it is not your cliched Italian semiseria opera.

It’s set on a plantation. A mad man is terrorising the neighbourhood. He turns out to be Cardenio who has run away from his wife after finding that she has been unfaithful. Donizetti and Ferretti (who did the libretto for Cenerentola) convey the madness really well and Cardenio strikes me as a plum role for a decent baritone – Michaels-Moore, Keenlyside, Lucic, Hvorsostovky would have a marvellous time with this. A woman is shipwrecked and there are absolutely no prizes for guessing that she turns out to be Cardenio’s wife, Eleonora. What I wasn’t particularly expecting was his brother to turn up also. He has two challenging arias and a fairly minimal role in the drama. You sense that he was added because (a) they needed a tenor in there somewhere and (b) to pad the story out. Of course everyone gets to meet for a rather splendid Act I finale (the sextet may not be quite Lucia standard, but it’s very good). In Act II the question is simply over whether or not the two will get back together or not. I won’t spoil the surprise.

The plum roles are Cardenio, Eleonora and Fernando, the brother, but there is a good second soprano role for Marcella, the plantation superviser’s daughter (Donna Bateman was excellent), for Bartolomeo, her father (Njabulu Madala – very promising and a good Donizetti style), and his slave Kaidama (Peter Braithwaite, likewise excellent in a Pedrillo sort of part).

Craig Smith sang Cardenio – sympathetic, intelligent, really stylish and making me wish that I’d seen his Boccanegra. Maybe a native Italian might have got more out of the language and a slightly more refulgent voice could have had more fun wiht the music.  It worked in the lovely intimacy of the Hackney Empire and he created a moving, believable figure with cultured, intelligent singing. Donizetti’s view of madness his is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s in King Lear – simply being unaware of where he is and who he is with, obsessing on the past.  As Elleonora, Sally Silver made an appealing penitent heroine, well in command of the music and managing the coloratura with aplomb. Nicholas Sherratt sounded great as Fernando – his slightly reedy voice works well in this repertory and he has the top notes, of which there are many. The chorus of 11 did an excellent job.

Jeremy Silver conducted flexibly, getting the idiom and catching the contrasts between the comedy and seriousness of this opera and getting them right. The ETO orchestra was really good.

Iqbal Khan directed. He took the text and the opera at face value and made me believe in the characters and their predicaments. He didn’t avoid some classic operatic poses and he avoided the rather uncomfortable political overtones of slavery in the West Indies, probably rightly.  Perhaps the set was a little too bare for the frequent scenes where people are watching others unseen or hiding or appearing unexpectedly. It did the trick, though and it was good to see the opera being taken seriously and intelligently.

Hand on heart, this doesn’t have any of those great, heart-stopping Donizetti numbers, the sheer brilliance of some of his comedies or the continuous quality of Lucia. But there’s a lot of very attractive stuff here and parts where Donizetti creates convincing, moving music. Thanks to ETO for doing it and I think it’s brilliant that they’re taking it round the country. It’s not a masterpiece but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable engrossing evening and it’s worth the occasonal revival.  If you can catch it, go.

More Guildhall Rarities

5 Mar

More respect to the Guildhall School for giving us the chance to see another two rarities. The only real connection between Donizetti’s I pazzi per progetto and Sir Malcolm Arnold’s The Dancing Master is that they’re hardly ever performed, but they’re both comedies and both give great opportunities for students. As an avid collector, seeing them both in one evening was too good an opportunity to miss.

The Donizetti is relatively early – 1830. It’s set in a madhouse where a venal guardian tries to place his daughter (who seems to chase men, particularly colonels), a deserting trumpeter seeks refuge as a doctor and a colonel returning from the wars arrives to see his angry wife and his mistress. Both husband and wife pretend to be mad before making up. Even with surtitles it’s pretty difficult to work out what’s going on and, after a while, you rather cease to care. The piece is about twenty minutes too long and there are one or two duets which seriously outstay their welcome. Musically, it fizzes along buoyed by the influence of Rossini (at one point the wronged wife quotes from Semiramide) but without any particularly memorable numbers. It doesn’t have the sheer sureness and wit that distinguishes the glorious Francesca di Foix.

And the singing didn’t quite do justice to the writing, though there were some valiant performances. At the cast I saw, Laura Ruhi-Vidal sang Norina, the wronged wife and was tested to the limits and beyond by the more exposed coloratura and florid passages. At other times, it struck me that there was a really nice light soprano here. Ailsa Mainwaring also seemed a bit stretched as the mistress, Cristina. Szymon Wach as Brinval, the philandering Colonel, has a nice, Corbelli-ish voice and, I thought, sang well and looked suitably bewildered. Best was David Shipley as the mad-house owner, Darlemont whose accurate coloratura and patter made me wish the role was larger.

The Arnold is an interesting curiosity and a rather tantalising pointer to what might have been a strong operatic career. Written in 1952 it was rejected by the BBC because it’s a bit naughty – I struggled to see why – and has barely been done since. The plot is reminiscent of a Rossini one-acter (and there are echoes of Barber, for example, all over the place. The daughter of a man with a silly Spanish accent is about to married to a man with a silly French accent decides that she prefers a man with a normal English accent who climbs through her window and has to pretend to be a dancing master. It runs out of steam slightly towards the end and could probably do with losing ten minutes. There’s an arch knowingness about the plot that might well get tedious after a few performance.

Arnold’s music, is exuberant – brassy, witty, at times touching and announcing a major new talent that, you wish, could have had the opportunities to refine it. Britten is obviously an influence with echoes of Grimes and Herring and you can hear loads of Shostakovitch in there too. What struck me as even more interesting was the sense that this idiom isn’t a million miles away from Bernstein and Sondheim, while some of it wouldn’t be out of place in St Trinian’s. It’s massively energetic, very much of its time and not quite good enough (even allowing for the awkward length to allow for being more than a really interesting, enjoyable curiosity. It certainly gives Walton’s The Bear a good run for its money and leaves Lennox Berkeley’s Dinner Engagement standing gaping in admiration.

II was done very well. Shipley was back as the silly father with the Spanish accent and sang strongly. He’s starting on the ROH’s Jette Parker programme and it’s a long time since I’ve heard such a firm, well trained, confident voice in this auditorium. The voice has none of the slight hollowness that lots of student basses have and he has a real authority about him. I don’t think I’ve felt so confident about prophesying a really good career for ages. Alison Rose made a very sweet Miranda who sang her rather touching aria really well. Robin Bailey hammed up Monsieur, the silly lover with the silly French accent, and Lawrence Thackeray was charming as Gerard the false Dancing Master.

I had the sense that Dominic Wheeler had spent most of the rehearsal time on the Arnold. The Donizetti was decently played, no more, but the Arnold was outstanding with the orchestra having a high old time with whooping horns and brass, eclectic rhythms and generally jollity. One of the best orchestral performances I’ve heard here.

Martin Lloyd-Evans directed both. There were some nice touches in the Donizetti – the continuo was played by one of the madman who insists on them singing rather than speaking the dialogue – but I think there was a limit to what he could do with one of the composer’s less successful operas. In the Arnold he caught the rather arch, camp silliness of it nicely. As ever, it was crisp and looked good.

I won’t go into mourning if I never see either of these again, but it is enriching to see them once and, if you can get a ticket, I’d go.

Marvellous Martyrs

7 Nov

I know we have a very busy operatic life in London, but can there not be a bit more co-ordination between the organisations? Like not performing little known operas on the same day?  Apparently this is just too difficult. On 4th November, the Mariinsky were performing Schedrin’s The Left Hander at the Barbican and Opera Rara were performing Donizetti’s Les Martyrs at the Royal Festival Hall. Insofar as they thought about, they may have thought that the public for Schedrin and the public for Donizetti didn’t overlap much, so they were safe. Most opera addicts will tell you this is nonsense and I’ve no doubt that there were a number of us who were seriously angry and having to miss one or the other. I plumped to go to the Donizetti.  Judging by the reviews, I think I was right.

It’s a curious piece. Poliuto had been forbidden in Naples – and Scribe was asked to translate and add to it to turn it into something fit for the Paris Opera. It was a moderate success but, what is interesting is that, in the 19th Century, Poliuto was a much more successful work. I can’t wait to see it at Glyndebourne next year if only to see the contrast.  On the evidence of this evening, I can see why it might be the case that Donizetti’s original might be preferable.

It is set in Armenia in Roman times: Polyeucte has converted to christianity. This is a problem because he’s married to Pauline, the daughter of Roman governor, Félix. Before she married Polyeucte, she was deeply in love with Sévère, a fanatical anti-Christian who is meant to have died in battle. Of course he didn’t and he duly turns up to do his bit of ethnic cleansing and finds himself in a nice situation where his former beloved is begging him to save her present husband. The deals is that Polyeucte will be saved if he recants. Paulina tries to make him do so but the end result is that she sees the light herself and the two are duly delivered to the lions.

I missed the lions scene. I have written before about the “is it worth the last train” problem. Today it was not just the last train, but a bus and I’m not sure that a combination of Florez, Kaufmann, Baker and Callas would make me endure that. The Parisians obviously didn’t have this problem in 1840 but, even so, the music lasted three hours with only a small part of the ballet music and we only had one interval.  Did none of them have jobs to go to the next day?

That points to the problem. It’s quite a leisurely piece. It feels as though a domestic drama lasting a couple of hours has been stretched quite a bit. It feels slower, more stately than Donizetti’s Italian works, as if there’s some padding and I’m not convinced that there’s enough added to make it work for this length. La Favorite and even Dom Sebastian strike me as dealing more interestingly with the grand opera form and, in the former case, much more successfully.  There really are only two interesting characters – Polyeucte and Paulina – and this isn’t quite enough for this length of time.  It might well have been more satisfying with the full extravagance of a performance at the Paris Opéra where there would at least have been more interesting things to watch.

That said, there are some really fine things in it. Two superb arias for Paulina and Poleucte, a fine trio at the end of Act I, a really good finale to Act III. I couldn’t make up my mind whether the duet for Paulina and Poleucte in the penultimate scene was kitsch or moving, but it’s jolly enough. There’s a lot that looks forward to Aida, particularly for the ceremonial stuff. Plot wise, it struck me that this was something which was easily updatable – a political class trying to deal a faith it can’t control, It could be a much more interesting work without the grand opera paraphernalia.

This was an excellent performance of it.  Polyeuctes was originally written for Nourrit and actually performed by his success Duprez.  He has a series of fearsome, but grateful pieces of music to sing.  Michael Spyres was outstanding in the role – elegant, impassioned singing and a top note (D, E?) that had us gasping at the technique.   He looks as though he may be about to become the next great bel canto tenor.  Joyce El-Khoury as Pauline had a similarly showy aria herself and did it remarkably well.  She also conveyed the passion and dignity of the role.  She’s obviously another major talent to watch.  David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt, Wynne Evans and Clive Bayley didn’t have much to do, really, but did it pretty well.

Mark Elder’s conducting was fluent, beautifully judged and brought out the best of the piece.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played really well – the opening of the overture – a concerto for four bassoons – was really well done and the details of the instrumentation came through well. The singers were supported properly and the Opera Rara chorus was strong.

The more I see of Donizetti the more fascinated I am by the sheer range of his output and his ability to convey emotion and action musically.  This is him at the height of his powers and, even if he may not be that comfortable with the form, it makes a hugely enjoyable evening.  It would be fun if someone could throw money at it and stage it as it might have been staged.  In the meantime, I’ll be getting the CD.