Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo
"A star is born" the local Italian newspaper proclaimed in English after the appearance of the little-known 21-year-old Caterina Sala as Adina in the opening production of the 2021 Donizetti Festival in Bergamo. Wow, how right they were.
Although just moments from the end of the opera, Sala’s extended aria "Ah! L’eccesso del contento" almost brings the show to a premature conclusion as the audience cheers, claps and stamps its feet for nearly two minutes. It won’t be the last time she gets such an ovation.
Sala has rare depth in her voice, and a wonderful, controlled vibrato throughout the range, never wandering from the note and which ascends smoothly from a rich lower tessitura to a brilliant top. She is pretty and seems to have a personality to conquer many a heart.
More is the pity that her performance comes in a disappointing production. Frederic Wake-Walker played up the artificiality of works he directed for Glyndebourne and Florence, and here, he and costume designer Daniela Cernigliaro present all the principals dressed as rosy-cheeked dolls, with child doubles and puppets of themselves to boot.
The most unfortunate victim of this approach is Javier Camarena, who appears as an Arlecchino-like Nemorino but in baggy pants, silly hat and an XXXL-size Ronnie Corbett jumper. The tenor sings sweetly enough, and draws out the lines of "Una furtiva lagrima" to beautiful lingering effect, but looks unlikely to win the lady nonetheless, elixir or no elixir.
Florian Sempey’s Belcore, a toy soldier with a Dad’s Army squadron, handles the coloratura securely although his voice sounds woolly at times. The comedy largely depends on the character of the charlatan Dr Dulcamara, but denied amusing props, Roberto Frontali is left to work it out for himself, reduced at one point to searching the inside of his hat, in case some helpful stage direction were to be found there. Evidently not. Sadly, this is a comedy with the laughs taken out.
In what is clearly a community venture, Wake-Walker sets the piece in Bergamo itself, with reproductions of its main piazza and a backdrop of the theatre. The audience, schooled beforehand, joins in the chorus at the start of act two, and various untrained locals have silent walk-on parts, looking as if they don’t know where to put themselves. Fun to do, but deadly amdram to watch.
Conductor Riccardo Frizza explains in the accompanying booklet that the piece is performed for the first time in its entirety, preserving repeats—adding about 15 minutes—and played on original instruments giving a softer sound than normal, and tuned to the pitch of Donizetti’s time, about a semitone lower.
The most evident difference from the familiar edition is in the sound of the bassoon that introduces Nemorino’s famour aria, and in an alternative version of Adina’s "Prendi, per me sei libero". The restored original number is not particularly special—something certainly not true of its singer.
Reviewer: Colin Davison