14 Jun 2005


It is an unfortunate fact that operas outside of the common repertory have in the past been deemed less worthy than those included in what amounts to a popular "play list" of works that consistently draw audiences.

Gaetano Donizetti's Elvida, recently issued by Opera Rara, is a perfect example. The composer's only one-act seria work has been criticized for its plot, and its score, especially the vocal lines, has been attacked as overly florid. Why, then, would a recording company with such dutiful care to historical integrity spend its time and money reviving it?

One can only be thankful that such a company exists, else gems like Elvida would lie amid the archival dust unperformed. A brief look at the opera's history (and the composer's career at the time of its composition) is instructive. Donizetti, still in the beginnings of his career, had come to Naples in 1822 just as Rossini was on his way to Vienna (unbeknownst to those in the Neapolitan arena, he had no plans to return). Donizetti was made director of one of the theaters and, although he accepted commissions from opera houses throughout Italy, Naples was to be the center of his compositional activities for nearly two decades. In the winter of 1826, just months before Elvida's July premiere, he had returned to Naples after a frustrating stint at the Teatro Carolina in Palermo, the second seat of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. All of his "mature" works lay ahead.

An understanding of Elvida's commission is important, too. The one-act work was to be part of the celebrations of the birthday of Maria Isabella, wife of King Francesco I. At no time would Donizetti have assumed that the work would (or should) have had a future beyond the four performances — all part of the celebrations — it received. Thus, modern-day writers who have based their opinions of the work on the number of performances it received have missed the point. The only way for Donizetti to ensure a future for the work would have been to disassemble it and employ numbers in subsequent compositions (which he did — but for quite a different purpose). Elvida, a royal occasion piece, had served its purpose, which, by the way, was exactly the same as Rossini's spectacular Viaggio a Reims had just one year earlier for the coronation of Charles X of France.

And what of the libretto? One critic called it "hopeless" — "another dose of Moors in Spain." Its purpose, however, ably suggested in the Opera Rara liner notes, was an hommage to Maria Isabella. These were the Spanish Bourbons whose ancestors had vanquished the Moors. What better way to celebrate their heritage, especially at a time when revolution was a constant undercurrent in their reign, than to recall their glorious past? And what of that overly florid vocal style? In honor of the Neapolitan royals, some of the greatest singers in Italy were engaged for this production (again, exactly what Rossini did with Viaggio). Henriette Méric-Lalande (who would premiere four roles for Bellini) sang Elvida, the great Luigi Lablache performed Amur, and one of the most amazing tenors of the early nineteenth century, Giovanni Battista Rubini, created the role of Alfonso. Thus, the amazing pyrotechnics in the score were created specifically for them. Composers, of course, did that all the time during this period, but would one give any less to the monarchs in whose theaters one was hoping to remain active?

For the 1827 Naples premiere of his opera Le convenienze teatrali, Donizetti alluded to Elvida by having the opera company portrayed in the piece rehearse a work called Romolo and Ersilia; not only did the title resemble Elvida but so did the music. Again, critics assumed that Donizetti did it as a joke, in essence belittling what he must have thought an inferior piece; this would have been extraordinarily foolish since the Bourbons were still in power (indeed, the "birthday girl" Maria Isabella, then the Queen Mother, lived until 1848). Rather it was intended as an "in" reference which only Neapolitan audiences would have enjoyed for, by rights of the occasion for which it was composed, Elvida belonged to them.

Despite what twentieth-century writers thought of Elvida, the opera is a diminutive gem more than worthy of the treatment Opera Rara has given it. As usual, the Opera Rara cast (a familiar one) is excellent. Annick Massis as Elvida and Bruce Ford as Alfonso deal ably with the music composed with Méric-Lalande and Rubini in mind. Equally splendid are Jennifer Larmore in the "breeches" role as Zeidar, son of Amur, sung by Pietro Spagnoli. Supporting the main players are Anne-Marie Gibbons as Zulma and Ashley Catling as Ramiro. Antonello Allemandi's direction of the London Philharmonic is masterful. Although the entire recording is well worth the time to listen, certain cuts deserve attention. Massis' interpretation of the aria "A che me vuoi? che brami" is among them, as is the stretta in Massis and Larmore's duet "Sì grave è il tormento." Excellent ensembles include the trio "Invan, superba, invano" (Massis, Larmore, and Spagnoli) and the two-movement quartet "Deh! ti placa... Amur, mi rendi" and "L'empio cor che chiudi in petto" (Ford, Massis, Larmore, and Spagnoli). Massis and Ford's precision and exuberance in the work's final number, the rondo "Il cielo, in pria sdegnato" is breathtaking.

The score for Elvida was prepared by Christopher Moss (one might wish that the liner notes had identified his source, but we can assume it is the autograph in the archives of Naples' Teatro San Carlo, where the work premiered). Kudos to Opera Rara for the courage to continue shattering all of those prejudices that had previously excluded works like Elvida from revival.

Denise Gallo