Returning Home: Enrico di Borgogna at the Festival Donizetti Opera

Donizetti – Enrico di Borgogna

Enrico – Anna Bonitatibus
Pietro – Francesco Castoro
Elisa – Sonia Ganassi
Guido – Levy Sekgapane
Gilberto – Luca Tittoto
Brunone – Lorenzo Barbieri
Nicola – Matteo Mezzaro
Geltrude – Federica Vitali

Coro Donizetti Opera, Academia Montis Regalis / Alessandro De Marchi.
Stage director – Silvia Paoli.

Festival Donizetti Opera, Teatro Sociale, Bergamo, Italy.  Friday, November 23rd, 2018.

Tonight marked my first visit to the Festival Donizetti Opera, held annually in the composer’s beautiful home town of Bergamo.  This year, the events of the festival exceptionally took place in the delightfully intimate Teatro Sociale in the heart of the old town, perched high up on a hill overlooking the newer lower town.  Opened in 1809 and restored in 2009, it’s a jewel of a house and a most delightful place to see a show.  Enrico di Borgogna was Donizetti’s third opera, but the first to be performed, premiered at the Teatro San Luca in Venice in 1818.  It took almost two hundred years for it to be revived, with a performance in Sweden in 2012.  These performances marked the first Italian production of the work in the twenty-first century in a new critical edition, prepared by Anders Wiklund.

Photo: © Rota

The plot is the usual boyish mezzo (Enrico) loves girl (Elisa) but she’s lusted after by the evil tenor king (Guido), who it transpires actually usurped the throne from the boyish mezzo’s father.  The boy, Enrico, was raised by a shepherd who kept his identity secret until it came time for him to take back the throne.  The pair live happily ever after.  It’s certainly a piece worthy of rediscovery.  There are some splendid numbers – Enrico’s opening cavatina could certainly be a party piece of lyric mezzos.  There’s an exciting big ensemble finale in Act 1 and a rousing number for baritone and chorus at the start of Act 2.  We see some hints of Donizetti’s future successes in a big scene for Elisa towards the end of Act 1, that seems to foretell La Favorite, and there’s a wonderfully virtuosic duet for the two mezzi, Enrico and Elisa, in Act 2.  Indeed, there’s much that points towards Donizetti’s future achievements but the work as a whole, understandably for an early piece in his oeuvre, feels in many ways like he’s still finding his compositional voice.  I heard so many echoes of Barbiere, itself premiered almost contemporaneously in 1816, with an overture that sounds really quite Rossinian and an aria for the bass, Gilberto, which sounds like it could have come from the other composer’s work.

Photo: © Rota

The staging was confided to the young Italian director, Silvia Paoli.  As the curtain rose, we saw the cast of Enrico preparing for a performance at the Teatro San Luca.  The characters hold cards with their names on but the role of Enrico is vacant.  A seamstress, helping to prepare the costumes, is reluctantly pushed into singing the title role.  What we then see is a traditional staging of the work, with some magnificent sets and costumes.  It looks good, was clearly fluently rehearsed, and the cast executed all the complex moves asked of them well.  The costumes (Valeria Donata Bettella) were most extravagant.  The downside was that it felt that we were looking in from the outside, not quite getting a sense of the characters – the stylized movements keeping us at one sense removed, especially given the somewhat episodic nature of the piece.  It did ultimately, however, work well, resisting the urge to slip into parody like Bechtolf’s recent Ernani at the Scala for instance.

Photo: © Rota

Of course, the rediscovery of a piece like this relies on strong musical values and we certainly had those tonight.  It was a pleasure to hear the period instruments of the Academic Montis Regalis in the pit.  The wonderful depth of sonorities available to the gut strings, the deliciously raspy brass and the piquant woodwinds, all gave a great deal of pleasure.  Alessandro de Marchi led a reading that was lovingly phrased, with swift tempi, and the evening sped by most entertainingly.  It was also very strongly sung.

Photo: © Rota

Anna Bonitatibus brought her wonderfully juicy mezzo to the role of Enrico.  It’s a role that sits quite low and that familiar sappy, orange tone was a pleasure to hear.  She sang with delightfully flowing tone in her opening cavatina and her closing victory aria demonstrated her impeccable stylistic intelligence, expressed through highly tasteful ornamentation.  She blended delightfully with Sonia Ganassi’s Elisa in their duet, both sparring quite marvellously with each other in virtuosic runs.  Elisa is a difficult role. It requires the heft and coloratura skill of an Eboli, with the lyricism of a Léonor.  Ganassi gave an impassioned account of the role.  She has both the heft and the fluency to pull it off, although her full mezzo sounded somewhat plummy and she didn’t always agree with the pitch set in the pit.  She most definitely has what it takes to sing the role though.

Photo: © Rota

Francesco Castoro sang Pietro, a role that requires the ability to sing long, flowing lines as well as to ping out on top.  He sounded a little nervous at first, his opening number somewhat raw and the long lines not quite consistently sustained.  He warmed up nicely though and in his Act 2 number sounded like a different singer, pinging out on top with a big, healthy sound.  Levy Sekgapane offered some stratospheric acuti as Guido, much to the pleasure of the public.  The voice is somewhat narrow, lacking a full range of tone colours, but the intonation was true and his fluency in the more florid writing was most impressive.  Luca Tittoto sang Gilberto, the jester.  His big, rounded and warm bass turned the corners most nicely.  I’d certainly love to hear him in the Rossini buffo roles.  Lorenzo Barbieri brought a compact and healthy baritone to the role of Brunone.  The youthful chorus, prepared by Fabio Tartari, sang with full, lusty tone and excellent blend.

Photo: © Rota

It was a real pleasure to rediscover this work in Donizetti’s own city and the Festival had clearly prepared the show with love and great care.  The musical and production standards were indeed exceptionally high.  We were given some very satisfying singing and an intelligent, visually beguiling production.  As a work, it’s certainly worth rediscovering.  It contains some tremendous numbers that surely belong on recital programs for curious singers with strong bel canto techniques.  A highly enjoyable evening.

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