22 Sep 2005
DONIZETTI: Francesca di Foix
Among Gaetano Donizetti’s compositions are just over a dozen one-act operas. Save for his one
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‘Remember me, the one who is Pia;/ Siena made me, Maremma undid me.’ The speaker is Pia de’ Tolomei. She appears in a brief episode of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Purgatorio V, 130-136) which was the source for Gaetano Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei - by way of Bartolomeo Sestini’s verse-novella of 1825.
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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.