Discovering a rediscovery: L’ange de Nisida at the Festival Donizetti Opera

Donizetti – L’ange de Nisida

Don Fernand d’Aragon – Florian Sempey
Don Gaspar – Roberto Lorenzi
Leone de Casaldi – Kim Konu
La comtesse Sylvia de Linarès – Lidia Fridman
Le Moine – Federico Benetti

Coro Donizetti Opera, Orchestra Donizetti Opera / Jean-Luc Tingaud.
Stage director – Francesco Micheli.

Festival Donizetti Opera, Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo, Italy.  Saturday, November 16th, 2019.

For this year’s edition, the Festival Donizetti Opera programmed a new discovery – L’ange de Nisida.  The work was written for the Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris, France to be premiered in 1840.  However, the finished opera never saw the light of day due to the bankruptcy of the theatre’s owner.  Never one to waste a good piece of work, Donizetti subsequently reused much of the material for La FavoriteAnge existed in manuscript form in hundreds of pages scattered around the holdings of the Bibilothèque nationale de France.  It’s thanks to the painstaking labours of musicologist, Dr Candida Mantica, who reconstructed the piece from the source material, that we were able to hear it tonight.  This wasn’t the world premiere – that occurred in a drearily-conducted concert performance at the London, England, Royal Opera last year – but this was the world stage premiere.  And where better to experience it that in Donizetti’s hometown, in the theatre that bears his name.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

The production was the work of the festival’s director, Francesco Micheli.  As the Teatro Donizetti is currently undergoing renovation, Micheli offered us an ingenious solution.  The action took place in the round, in the theatre’s Platea, with audience members in the Palchi (boxes) as well as on the theatre’s actual stage, seated in temporary bleachers.  It made for an inspirational setting, this unfinished work, taking shape in front of us, in an unfinished building, surrounded by the audience from every angle.  The plot is relatively straightforward – an exile, Leone, arrives on the island of Nisida to be met by the King’s Chamberlain, Don Gaspar (a buffo role in this semi-serious opera).  Leone rediscovers a previous love, Sylvia, now the King’s mistress.  A mysterious monk threatens to excommunicate the King for adultery.  In the end Leone and Sylvia die.  What we get is a compelling story of the struggles between church and state, the status of women (particularly those on the edge of society), and the rediscovery of true love and the search for redemption.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

In order to accommodate the action in the round, Micheli uses the space quite skilfully.  Rather than sets, he uses projections of a variety of imagery – images of Nisida, coats of arms, as well as musical sketches, the score literally coming to life before us.  For the first half of the evening, the floor was covered with sheets of paper as if, again, allowing the fragments of the work to come to life.  Micheli uses his singers to provide constantly changing stage pictures – whether placing the chorus in the balcony, the people separated from the courtly action, or by using them as dancers within the arena in the second half of the evening, setting up a vivid impression of courtly life.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

Micheli also highlights Sylvia’s plight most sensitively, in turn allowing the audience to reflect on the plight of those women who have no choice but to give their bodies to powerful men.  In a striking scene in Act 2, Sylvia is raised on a pedestal and praised by the crowd.  Yet, the scene is interrupted by the entry of the Monk who humiliates her, in an instant going from praised to scorned, debased and belittled in front of others.  This was an exceptionally powerful image and all of a piece with Micheli’s willingness to understand and tell Sylvia’s story.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

The Festival was also very fortunate to engage the services of Jean-Luc Tingaud.  His conducting was revelatory, revealing this work to be the major opera it actually is, and one that fully deserves a place in the repertoire.  He created an ideal blend of the long-phrased beauty of the melodic line, superimposed on a constantly driving rhythmic impetus.  His tempi were always vital, while also allowing for an elastic lyricism where necessary.  Strings played with minimal vibrato, attack was sharp, and the quality of the playing of the festival orchestra was excellent.  The youthful chorus had been well prepared by Fabio Tartari.  They sang with fresh tone, wonderfully blended in the haunting chorus ‘Frères, il faut mourir’.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

As Sylvia, Lidia Fridman sang with a delectably dark and silky soprano that rose to a bright and easy top.  She clearly has wonderful agility and an ability to produce immaculately clean coloratura, if as yet without a genuine trill.  She sang with dignity and generosity – as well as a well-schooled legato.  Her singing lacked perhaps the ultimate degree of individuality and this was simply due to the fact that the text was, for the most part, incomprehensible as Fridman focused on the beauty of the line, rather than the dramatic insight of the words.  Still, it’s a lovely instrument and I’d very much like to hear her again.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

Her love interest was sung by Kim Konu in an ardent, silvery and focused tenor.  He has a very classy sense of line and a terrific ability to float some beautiful high notes on the breath, making some ravishing use of voix mixte.  Again, the text could be tighter – he kept singing ‘bon air’ instead of ‘bonheur’ – but that staggering ease on top and his eager, puppyish stage presence will surely ensure him a very bright future in this rep.  As Don Gaspar, Roberto Lorenzi, brought delicious comic timing and wit to his character, delivered in a rustic bass-baritone and highly active stage presence.  There appeared to be a few occasional aspirates in his legato, but he surely has a bright future in the buffo roles.  Federico Benetti brought a craggy yet velvety bass to the role of the Monk.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

In the role of the King, Don Fernand, Florian Sempey was sensational.  He has clearly studied the style with great attention and gave us singing that was truly bel canto.  With an impeccable legato, judicious enhancements to the line, as well as that unteachable combination of being able to unite text and music, Sempey gave an enormous amount of pleasure.  The voice is in fabulous shape – rounded, with a healthy resonance, and he pulled out some impressively full high notes at the top of the voice.  Perhaps inevitably, as the sole Francophone in the cast, his diction was crystal clear throughout, investing the words with deeper meaning and making the drama live as a result.  I look forward to seeing Sempey develop even further in this rep – he has what it takes to be one of the leading bel canto baritones of today.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

This was a splendid evening in the theatre.  An enormous thanks must be extended to the Festival for not only allowing us to see this magnificent work staged, but to see it in such a musically and dramatically excellent production.  That this was possible at all is due to the painstaking work by Dr Mantica who has given the world the opportunity to hear an opera that really does deserve a place in the repertoire.  Intelligently staged, superbly conducted, we were given an evening of true bel canto.  The good news – tonight’s performance was filmed for DVD release on the Dynamic label.  Lovers of Donizetti.  Lovers of bel canto will want to have this in their collections.

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