22 Sep 2005
DONIZETTI: Francesca di Foix
Among Gaetano Donizetti’s compositions are just over a dozen one-act operas. Save for his one
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
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Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
Among Gaetano Donizetti’s compositions are just over a dozen one-act operas. Save for his one
A case in point is the melodramma giocoso entitled Francesca di Foix (1831). For instance, William Ashbrook, perhaps the most noted interpreter of Donizetti’s career, deemed this score “largely inconsequential,” suggesting as well that it was “not the expected sequel to Anna Bolena” (1830) and that it must have been composed with “minimal exertion.” The current re-examination of opera’s narrative has compelled scholars to take a different approach. No longer is it protocol to separate out works that somehow seem apart from the norm; rather it is important, especially in light of slow but steady publication of sets of critical editions, to acknowledge each work as a step in a composer’s compositional development. Hence, a recording of Francesca di Foix, especially one as well-performed as this latest addition to Opera Rara’s CDs of the works of Donizetti, becomes as important as it is entertaining.
Francesca di Foix was written for performance at the San Carlo in Naples for the onomastico or name day of Ferdinando II. Jeremy Commons, author of the CD liner notes, seems surprised by the subject of the work: it revolves around jealousy rather than love. Given the importance and international vogue of French opéra comique, the libretto, based on a subject set by Henri-Montan Berton, hardly seems out of place at all. Furthermore, the history of Donizetti’s opera speaks to its popularity. The gala starred the most important baritone of the primo Ottocento stage: Antonio Tamburini (who, let it be noted, sang the role of the King, the character who not only sorts of Francesca’s problems with her husband but who would have symbolized Ferdinando). Given that there was no such thing as an operatic repertory, it is unfair to judge the quality of Francesca’s music on its seven-performance run. Moved to the Teatro Fondo from the massive venue in which it was premiered, it nonetheless was returned to the San Carlo, where it was sung three more times. Its future after that is predictable; since occasional pieces generally were associated with the celebrations for which they were commissioned, it is highly unlikely that Donizetti would have considered offering his name-day present to the ruler of the city in which he was employed to theaters outside of Naples. He may have gained nothing more than fame from the work, but the fact that he plumbed it later for self-borrowings suggests that he was confident about the score. The comment of music publisher Guglielmo Cottrau (“the music is very feeble”) can easily be explained away; it was par for the course, indeed obligatory for publishers to speak ill of the music of composers in whose works they did not deal (in fact, Cottrau would not publish Donizetti’s music until later).
Assuming that Patric Schmid and Robert Roberts’ performing edition, based on the holograph score at the Naples Conservatory, has preserved the work’s historical integrity, Opera Rara’s Francesco di Foix is a delight. The recording’s cast features a now-familiar set of performers who excell in this repertory. Among these regulars are Annick Massis, Bruce Ford, Pietro Spagnoli, and in another “breeches role,” Jennifer Larmore, all joined by Alfonso Antoniozzi. One comes to expect the highest quality from this core group and no one disappoints in this production. Particularly notable is Massis’ rendition of the cabaletta “Donzelle, si vi stimola,” a perfect example of the some of the inventive elements in this score. Massis and Ford offer a spectacular rendition of the stretta “Quante son delle civette” of Francesca and the Duke’s duet. As usual, Larmore’s performance is consistently excellent as is Spagnoli’s. If it is Opera Rara’s intent (and one must go by the liner notes in this case) to highlight Francesca di Foix as an opera semiseria, Antoniozzi’s interpretation, heard even in his entrance, “Che vita, della caccia” emphasizes the buffo elements of his role a bit too strongly. On the other hand, this interpretation may serve well for it allows listeners to link this score with roles like Dulcamara and Don Pasquale. Finally, the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir offers non-intrusive but substantive support that is right on the mark.
Francesca di Foix is no inconsequential work; rather it is a gem in miniature, featuring all of the stylistic elements of primo Ottocento opera in one single act. Kudos to Opera Rara for (re)introducing it to the world.