Alfredo il Grande

Gaetano Donizetti, libretto Andrea Leone Tottola
Donizetti Opera, Bergamo

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The ensemble Credit: Gianfranco Rota
Antonino Siragusa (Alfredo), Gilda Fiume (Amalia) and Lodovico Ravizza (Eduardo) Credit: Gianfranco Rota
Gilda Fiume (Amalia) and Antonino Siragusa (Alfredo) Credit: Gianfranco Rota
Adolfo Corrado (Atkins), Valeria Girardello (Enrichetta) and Gilda Fiume (Amalia) Credit: Gianfranco Rota

It is not that the thing should be done well, Samuel Johnson might have observed, but that it should be done at all. And certainly, the annual Donizetti festival in Bergamo performs a great service by reviving many of the composer’s long-forgotten works.

In 2023, it choose Alfredo il Grande, premièred exactly 200 years earlier in Naples. Donizetti had just succeeded the adored Rossini there, and the piece was received with boos. And if more expectation management were needed for this rare revival, the first ever to my knowledge, both conductor Corrado Rovaris and director Stefano Simone Pintor refer to the work in the accompanying booklet as a ‘training’ piece, lacking much originality and with "a rambling libretto."

There are nevertheless some passages of musical merit, while it must be said that the libretto, by Andrea Leone Tottola is a complete dud.

The story, such as it is, tells how Alfred has fled from Viking invaders and is in hiding in a shepherd’s hut at Athelney in the Somerset marshes. His queen Ealswith (renamed Amalia) sets out to find him; they are ambushed by the Danes, led by Guthrum (bizarrely renamed Atkins), but freed by the Alfred’s troops and armed shepherds.

Alfred defeats the enemy in battle, but Amalia is briefly captured, before being rescued, and the victorious king is hailed as a hero.The implausible narrative is almost comic, Pintor admits, and includes a reference, mercifully ignored in the production, to Alfred escaping from the primitive hut via a secret underground tunnel that leads into the next valley.

The director has the inspired idea of basing his conception on Alfred’s deserved reputation as a scholar and champion of learning, although this is not referred to once in the text. Amalia and her allies clutch an old book as they navigate affairs, whereas Atkins’s reaction is to tear and crumble its pages; meanwhile, video projection juxtaposes scenes of war with the closure or destruction of libraries.

The production is not without its own possibly unconscious comic or puzzling elements, however. Amalia (Gilda Fiume) and her confederate Eduardo (Lodovico Filippo Ravizza) set off to find Alfredo (Antonino Siragusa) by donning Wellington boots—I kid you not—whereas shepherd Guglielmo (Antonio Gares) wears golden robes that would grace an archbishop, and Alfred’s unhistoric crusader knights might have been at home with Monty Python.

The second act is almost devoid of dramatic tension, but has much to enjoy musically, particularly an introspective aria for Alfredo, accompanied by a doleful clarinet, sandwiched between triumphal martial passages. This is followed by a delicately balanced quintet for the principals, with interaction between the on-stage band and their colleagues in the pit.

The vocal writing is florid throughout, but leaves the best to last, with the spirited Fiume outstanding in her extended closing aria and cabaletta that unusually closes the opera. Alfred may be Great, but Amalia the Greater, it seems.

Siragusa maintains a certain lofty nobility without much need to ascend to the heroic tenor heights, baritone Ravizza is smoothly sympathetic and the engaging Valeria Girardello displays a velvety tone as the peasant Enrichetta.

The chorus comprises the Hungarian Radio Choir, who sing in concert formation, holding copies of the score. This may be just about compatible with the production’s central idea that knowledge and culture should triumph over ignorance and savagery, but I suspect has more to do with the economy in reducing rehearsal time for shipped-in singers. If that is what it takes to stage such a rarity, so be it.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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