Imprisoned: La Favorite at the Festival Donizetti Opera

Donizetti – La Favorite

Léonor de Guzman – Annalisa Stroppa
Fernand – Javier Camarena
Alphonse XI – Florian Sempey
Balthazar – Evgeny Stavinsky
Don Gaspard – Edoardo Milletti
Inès – Caterina Di Tonno

Coro Donizetti Opera, Coro dell’Accademia Teatro alla Scala, Orchestra Donizetti Opera / Riccardo Frizza.
Stage director – Valentina Carrasco.

Donizetti Opera Festival, Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo, Italy.  Friday, November 18th, 2022.

As always, it’s an enormous pleasure to be back in the wonderful city of Bergamo, tonight for the opening of the 2022 Festival Donizetti Opera, featuring this new production of La Favorite, directed by Valentina Carrasco, and conducted by the festival’s Music Director, Riccardo Frizza.  Indeed, it was quite apposite to return to the beautiful, and beautifully restored, Teatro Donizetti, as it was here back in 2019, just before the world changed, that a production of the earlier version of this work, L’Ange de Nisida, was performed on the building site that was then the Teatro in the process of being restored. 

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

Carrasco gives us a pretty straightforward piece of theatre, but with some innovations.  She places the action mainly between two sets of what appear to be prison bars – one set at the front of the stage, and other set at the rear.  This was an interesting way to illustrate the various states of imprisonment the characters found themselves in – Fernand in his monastery, Léonor as the King’s mistress, and even the King himself in his kingship.  The sets (Carles Berga and Peter Van Praet) were simple.  A group of structures that could be adjusted easily between being groups of candle holders, as in seen in churches, or as bunk beds, was moved around the stage creating varying stage pictures.  So far, so clear.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

Yet as in her recent Tosca in Macerata, Carrasco also adds an additional layer to the action, that seemed unclear.  A group of around twenty lady extras, d’un certain âge, were seen on stage sitting on the beds at the opening.  Later, in the Act 2 ballet, we saw them perambulating around the stage, indulging in synchronized hair tussling, fanning themselves, or applying maquillage.  Perhaps Carrasco is attempting to make a point about women of a certain age being discarded by society, hidden behind bars.  Perhaps, they were formerly also the King’s mistresses and Léonor will join their number in due course.  But then, during the ballet, they taunted the King, painting his entire face with said maquillage, as if regaining power over him – was this a way of getting revenge on him in his harem?  The audience seemed to find it hysterically funny, even though sexual slavery is most definitely not a laughing matter. 

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

Personenregie consisted of a fair bit of standing and delivering to the front.  The chorus walked around in circles, while at times also indulging in synchronized curtseying.  There was a large image of the virgin that towered over the action in the final act – was that a statement about how women are seen and expected to behave?  Again, I’m not entirely sure that Carrasco knows or is able to communicate this to her audience, but it is a perceptive idea.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

Musically, tonight once again demonstrated the exceptional standards the festival offers us every year.  Annalisa Stroppa gave us a commanding Léonor of unflinching commitment.  She gave so generously of herself, using her mahogany mezzo to illustrate the music with stylistic panache: long agile runs, brave excursions to the highest reaches, and charming embellishments to the line.  And yet, Stroppa left me completely cold for the simple reason that I couldn’t understand a word of what she was singing.  Her diction was barely comprehensible, the impact of her performance greatly diminished, despite her wholehearted and generous commitment, by the simple fact that one could understand nothing.  It’s a real shame because hers was such a dedicated performance that had one been able to perceive any words, one might have also looked past the voice spreading in the middle to sit around the note rather than on it, or the lack of colour at the very top.  Still, I was greatly impressed by Stroppa’s dedication. 

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

Javier Camarena sang Fernand in his familiar bright and well-placed tenor.  The clarity of his diction was impeccable, looking for, and drawing out, meaning.  He was tireless throughout, pinging out on high with ease.  Indeed, the way that the voice takes wing, soaring into a golden glow on high, yet always full and rounded, is something really special.  He sang his ‘ange si pur’ with gravity-defying beauty, the voice sustaining endless lines with immaculate breath control, and the voice even throughout the range.  An impressive assumption. 

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

I must admit to initially thinking that Florian Sempey was a little out of sorts as Alphonse XI.  He seemed to be making a great effort to focus on producing the tone and creating amplitude at first.  Yet this might have been down to first night nerves as Sempey quickly rallied to bring us once again his superb bel canto technique.  Sempey understands implicitly how this music should go.  His baritone can turn the corners with flexibility – and he has a genuine trill.  It goes without saying that his diction was exemplary, legato milky smooth, and breath control tireless.  He also gave us some extremely tasteful embellishments to the line.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

The remaining cast again demonstrated the exceptionally high standards of the festival.  Evgeny Stavinsky sang Balthazar in a warm, rounded bass, with delightfully complex tone colour.  If only one knew what language he was singing in.  Edoardo Milletti sang Don Gaspard in a bright, well-placed and attractive tenor.  Indeed, one would certainly like to hear his Fernand at some future point, if he can strengthen the clarity of his French diction.  Caterina Di Tonno sang Inès in a delightfully fizzy soprano.  The youthful choruses, prepared by Salvo Sgrò, made a terrifically homogenous sound, the tenors in particular shining attractively out of the textures.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

Frizza led a reading that was ideally paced, so much so that the three and a half hours flew by.  He had clearly rehearsed his orchestra extremely thoroughly – the precision of their attack was staggering and they were as one with the beauty of the phrasing, and approach to articulation, that he elicited from them.  Yes, there were a few isolated passages of occasionally sour string intonation, but these were very much passing.  What struck me most about Frizza’s conducting was how he brought out the beauty of Donizetti’s orchestration.  The horns played with noble pulchritude (and no accidents) in ‘ô mon Fernand’, and there was a constant awareness and ability to communicate the complex interplay between the various orchestral lines that I found truly reflective of bel canto.  Frizza, with every passing year, is growing increasingly in stature and mastery of this repertoire, and I look forward eagerly to next year’s instalment.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

This was definitely an evening that showed the best of this festival.  It had clearly been exceptionally well prepared, both musically and dramatically.  Camarena and Sempey gave towering performances of their respective roles, singing with thrilling bel canto techniques.  Stroppa gave so generously of herself which made it all the more regrettable that one could barely understand a word.  Carrasco’s staging had considerable insight, but again left me not entirely convinced by the execution rather than the concept, which had considerable merit.  The evening was rewarded by an exceptionally generous ovation for the singers and conductor, indeed there were considerable lengthy ovations between numbers, and a polite ovation for Carrasco and her team.  Certainly worth travelling to Bergamo for. 

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