04 Jul 2007
DONIZETTI: Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal
When hearing the final work of a composer whose life was cut short, one can not help but wonder, “What if?”
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When hearing the final work of a composer whose life was cut short, one can not help but wonder, “What if?”
For instance, would Bellini have bested the success of I puritani had he lived to compose again? Or what might Turandot have sounded like had Puccini not had that fatal post-surgery heart attack? “What if” musings about Gaetano Donizetti’s last opera are especially bittersweet. Unlike Bellini’s and Puccini’s, Donizetti’s final work, Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal, was composed some four years before his death in 1848. Even though Caterina Cornaro was the last work he debuted, it actually had been composed a year before Dom Sébastien, the five-act grand opéra that premiered in Paris in 1843. It was during its rehearsals at the Opéra that the symptoms of cerebro-spinal syphilis, the disease that would kill the composer, began to incapacitate him mentally and physically, signaling the end of years of frenetic professional activity between Vienna, Paris, and a variety of theaters in Italy.
In spite of Donizetti’s health problems, the onset of which had troubled Dom Sébastien’s genesis, the opera poses a critical “what if.” Had Donizetti been able to continue his prolific career, would he—indeed, could he—have outdone what he achieved in this opera? Dom Sébastien is a massive score of nearly symphonic proportions expertly colored with elements that portray Europe and exotic Africa. Moreover, by employing allusion to chant, Donizetti even reflected the austerity of the Inquisition. Although there are “signature” passages that identify the opera as his, its magnitude introduces a heretofore unknown Donizetti at his creative peak—ironic, of course, since it also signals his creative demise.
Those who know Donizetti through the “standards”—Don Pasquale, Lucia di Lammermoor, and L’elisir d’amore—owe it to themselves to hear Dom Sébastien. An 1984 recording on the Legato Classics label exists but to get the full power and sheer dynamic drama of the work, Opera Rara’s three CD box with (as always) exhaustive liner notes is a better choice. As usual, Opera Rara has issued a recording that boasts historical integrity; the score employed was based on the one edited by musicologist Mary Ann Smart and published by Ricordi in 2003 as part of its Critical Edition of Donizetti’s works. A critical edition painstakingly traces all authorized versions and revisions, thus allowing modern interpreters a number of performance choices that will still reflect the work in its original forms. Opera Rara has taken this responsibility to heart, even including libretto passages by Dom Sébastien’s librettist Eugène Scribe that Donizetti may never have set. Also, three tracks faithfully interpret the music of the opera’s ballet, that ubiquitous element in French opera. Recorded in concert version at Covent Garden in 2005, this production truly exhibits the entirety of Donizetti’s final work.
Even though this is the finest recording of Dom Sébastien available, it is not without road bumps. Although the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House plays flawlessly under the baton of Mark Elder and that house’s chorus supports the soloists admirably under Renato Balsadonna’s direction, the cast is uneven. Sharing honors as the best of the cast are tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, who sings Sébastian, and baritone Simon Keenlyside as his Moorish rival, Abayaldos. Both singers offer impressive interpretations, so impressive, in fact, that they often show off the weaknesses of their fellow cast members. Alone, Filianoti always offers a clear, strong voice, impressive in such arias as “Seul sur la terre.” Similarly, Keenlyside’s renderings are consistent and rich. He, too, is perhaps the performer who most ably, through his voice alone, exploits the drama of the role entrusted to him.
Vesselina Kasarova (Zayda) has a rich mezzo with lush dark overtones, but her use of portamento at times approaches “scooping,” a distraction as she often approaches her notes from below. She almost always interprets the Moorish girl with vocal intensity, but there are delightful moments, such as in the aria “O mon Dieu, sur la terre,” when she allows her lyrical abilities to shine. Generally, she pairs well with the other singers, absolutely critical in this opera which is heavily laden with complex ensemble singing. However, the final notes of her Act II duet with Filianoti (“Courage!...ô mon roi! Courage”) take her mezzo to an uncomfortable altitude; while Filianoti hits his pitch with ease, she almost screeches hers. On the other hand, she pairs perfectly with Keenlyside; especially noteworthy is the Act II duet “Ah! Eh bien! Je le préfère/ Ne crois pour te soustraire” in which the dynamic climax allows her to remain comfortably within her range.
One could have wished for a better vocal interpretation of the role of the poet/soldier Camoëns. From his first appearance, “Soldat, j’ai rêvé la victoire” baritone Carmelo Corrado Caruso disappoints. Certainly not lacking in dramatic ability, his consistent wobble distracts from the vocal lines Donizetti created for this character. He virtually circles his pitches, at times so busily that it is hard to know where his is aiming. Although this is particularly apparent in recitative, it also mars arias such as the poet’s elegant musing, “O Lisbonne, ô ma patrie!”
Other roles are handled ably: Alastair Miles as Dom Juam de Silva, tenor John Upperton as Dom Antonio and the First Inquisitor, Andrew Slater as Ben-Sélim, Robert Gleadow as Dom Henrique, Martyn Hill as Dom Luis, Nigel Cliffe as the Soldier, and John Bernays as the Third Inquisitor. Despite a wonderful orchestra, cast, and chorus, the glory in this recording belongs to Donizetti, whose score remains a wonder to this day. Because of its sheer size, Dom Sébastien would rarely be cost-effective for any company to produce (hence, the Royal Opera’s concert performances). Opera Rara’s recording, then, is the safest way to hear a magnificent opera that promises to have its listeners wondering “what if?”