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Reviews

<em>L’Ange de Nisida</em>: Opera Rara at the Royal Opera House
19 Jul 2018

A Donizetti world premiere: Opera Rara at the Royal Opera House

There may be sixty or so operas by Donizetti to choose from, but if you’ve put together the remnants of another one, why not give everyone a chance to hear it? And so, Opera Rara brought L’Ange de Nisida to the concert stage last night, 180 years after it was composed for the Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris, conductor Sir Mark Elder leading a team of bel canto soloists and the Choir and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a committed and at times stirring performance.

L’Ange de Nisida: Opera Rara at the Royal Opera House

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Laurent Naouri (Don Gaspar)

Photo credit: Russell Duncan (Opera Rara/ROH)

 

L’Ange de Nisida is one of the middle knots in a cat’s-cradle of sources. In 1838, frustrated by the obduracy of the Italian censors, Donizetti moved to Paris and within just a few months his operas were being acclaimed in all the capitals major theatres. Les Martyrs (a revision of Poliuto, which had been disallowed from the Neapolitan stage) was admired at L’Opéra, which had also commissioned Le Duc d’Albe; La Fille du régiment had a successful premiere at the Opéra-Comique; a French version, prepared by Donizetti, ofLucia di Lammermoor opened at the Théâtre de la Renaissance in August 1839. No wonder Berlioz complained that Donizetti’s presence in Paris was a véritable guerre d’invasion’.

The success of Lucia led the Théâtre de la Renaissance to commission a new work with a libretto by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz - L'Ange de Nisida. Donizetti putLe Duc d’Albe on hold and began work on L’Ange de Nisida, drawing on the score of Adelaide, an incomplete opera semiseria. The bankruptcy of the Théâtre de la Renaissance put a spanner in the works, though; ever the pragmatist, Donizetti drafted in Eugene Scribe to re-work the libretto, set about adapting the score of L’Ange de Nisida, added a little music from Le Duc d’Alba, and La Favorite was born. The latter was premiered on 2nd December 1840 at L’Opéra, while L’Ange de Nisida was condemned to nearly two decades of silence and obscurity.

10 years of painstaking detective and re-construction work by Italian musicologist Candida Mantica have brought the 800-page score back to life. Mantica has shown that press reports from La France musicale and La Revue et Gazette musicale, dating from February 1839, confirm that not only was the opera complete, but that rehearsals were underway and that the Théâtre de la Renaissance had prepared a mise-en-scène. The scholar argues that the reconstruction of L’Ange de Nisida (from the autograph score of La Favorite and other materials in the Bibliothèque nationale de France) illuminates Donizetti’s creative process, enables comparison of the dramatic and musical characteristics of French and Italian genres at this time, and offers information about the history of Théâtre de la Renaissance. [1]

Set in 1470 in Nisida and Naples, L’Ange de Nisida serves up the standard elements of opera semiseria - a tragic love-triangle and a comic strand. It also makes one rue, ‘If only they’d talked about things’, for the characters are all sure of their own plans and ignorant of those of others, and the result of their misconceptions is muddle and misery.

Leone de Casaldi, exiled from the army after a duel, flees to Nisida, an island off the Neapolitan coast. He yearns to see his beloved Sylvia who, unbeknown to Leone, is the mistress of King Fernand of Naples and is much admired by his people. Sylvia, annoyed at being lured to Naples from her native Andalusia with the promise of a husband only to become a mere paramour, keeps both admirers at arm’s length. Don Gaspar, Chamberlain to the King, meets Leone, learns of his need for refuge and starts meddling. In brief: Leone lands up in gaol before Sylvia’s pleas gain his release; the King’s plan to wed Sylvia is scuppered when a monk appears brandishing a Papal Bull threatening to send Sylvia to a convent if the King defies Rome and marries her; and Don Gaspar comes up with a plan by which Leone will marry Sylvia, then be banished so that the King can keep Sylvia as his mistress. After various mix-ups, the deceptions are discovered, and Leone decides to become a monk. Sylvia, near death, follows him to beg forgiveness for doubting his fidelity, but when they attempt to flee she expires at his feet.

Joyce E-K and DJK.jpgJoyce El-Khoury (Sylvia), David Junghoon Kim (Leone) and Sir Mark Elder. Photo credit: Russell Duncan (Opera Rara/ROH).

Mark Elder’s commitment and concentration were noteworthy. There was not the smallest motif in the choral or orchestral parts that was not carefully, lovingly gestured and nurtured. The balance between soloists and orchestra was superb, especially as the ROH Orchestra had been released from the nether regions and placed on stage. Elder made sure that the imaginative woodwind colours registered, allowing us to enjoy not only Donizetti’s orchestrations but also those of Martin Fitzpatrick who has fleshed out some of the sketchy passages in the sources. Both Chorus and Orchestra demonstrated an excellent appreciation of style and a feeling for the dramatic character of the piece, and Elder’s energy was unflagging throughout the two and a half hours of music.

As the Chancellor puffed up with his own self-importance and misguided assurance of his Machiavellian nous, Laurent Naouri squeezed ever dramatic drop from the role of Don Gaspar; energised, colourful, attentive to the text and nimble in the patter, Naouri made a considerable contribution to the theatrical impact of this concert staging. Act Three is full of musico-dramatic interest, and Naouri’s duet with Vito Priante’s King Ferdinand, was a highlight of the evening, as he sought to back-track on his plan when he realised that Leone was truly in love with Sylvia.

I have to confess that David Junghoon Kim, a former Jette Parker Young Artist, has not impressed me overly in the past, singing competently and sometimes acting a little stiffly. But, I’m now prepared to eat my words: this was a tremendous performance which revealed a sure sense of bel canto idiom and a powerful tenor with plenty of penetrating presence. His phrasing was elegant, from his first avowals of love to his bitter rejection of the King, when Leone learns of Don Gaspar’s manoeuvrings and throws down the sword that he had previously put at the King’s service. The tenor went from strength to strength, growing in dramatic confidence as the action progressed. As the machinating monk who thwarts the amorous intrigues, Evgeny Stavinsky was also superb, revealing a lovely warm bass.

Joyce El-Khoury seemed a little out of sorts as Sylvia. She looked and sounded hesitant initially, and her tone never really found its shine or coloration. Though she sang with discerning shapeliness of phrase in the Act 3 cabaletta - in which she laments Leone’s apparent, but mistaken, dishonour - the following cabaletta (adapted from Maria di Rohan, owing to a gap in the sources), was lacking in fluency and clarity.

While the first three Acts were fully engaging, Donizetti seems rather to have lost his way a little in Act 4, where the extended quiet, plaintive duet for Leone and Sylvia resulted in a dissipation of dramatic energy and, for this listener at least, lessened the emotive impact of the tragedy. But, we are indebted to Opera Rara for yet another ‘first’ and for their courage, commitment and stamina in pursuing the rare and vanished in this repertoire.

L’Ange de Nisida is repeated on 21st July. A live live recording will be made for release in 2019, marking the company’s 25 th complete opera recording by the composer and Sir Mark Elder’s ninth Donizetti title for Opera Rara.

Claire Seymour

Donizetti: L’ange de Nisida (Libretto by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz)
Opera Rara: Conductor - Mark Elder
Sylvia - Joyce El-Khoury, Leone de Casaldi - David Junghoon Kim, King Fernand of Naples - Vito Priante, Don Gaspar - Laurent Naouri, Monk - Evgeny Stavinsky, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Royal Opera Chorus.
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Wednesday 18th July 2018.


[1] Candida Mantica, ‘From Lucia de Lammermoor to L’Ange de Nisida, 1839-1840: Gaetano Donizetti at the Théâtre de la Renaissance’, Revue Belge de Musicologie/Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap , 2012, Vol.66, pp.167-179.

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