La Favorite

Gaetano Donizetti, libretto Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaez
Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo

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Annalisa Stroppa (Leonor) and Florian Sempey (Alphonse) Credit: Gianfranco Rota
Javier Camarena (Fernand), Florian Sempey (Alphonse) and Annalisa Stroppa (Leonor) Credit: Gianfranco Rota
The marriage scene of Leonor and Fernand Credit: Gianfranco Rota
Annalisa Stroppa (Leonor) Credit: Gianfranco Rota
In the monastery Credit: Gianfranco Rota
The women condemn Alphonse Credit: Gianfranco Rota

La Favorite was the last of four operas that Donizetti composed for Paris in 1840, and if it has never achieved the success of La Fille du Regiment, it has recovered some place in the repertoire thanks to its appeal to great tenors such as Alfredo Kraus and Luciano Pavarotti.

The story is very loosely based on events in the 13th century. The novice monk Fernand abandons his monastic calling to be with his beloved Leonor, but is unaware that she is the mistress of Alphonse XI, king of Castile. Threatened with excommunication unless he gives her up, Alphonse gives her to Fernand, who has done him great service in the army. The latter is shocked to learn of her past and returns to his monastery, but Leonor follows him in disguise, only to die in his arms.

Leonor was a real person, but far from being rejected by the King, bore him 11 children, although forced to live in a sort of harem in the still half-Arab Spain, a situation that would then have seemed perfectly acceptable.

Fernand’s rejection of her on a point of honour might therefore seem incongruous, except in the mores of a later age, and director Valentina Carrasco accordingly updates the setting to around the time of the work’s composition and Romantic sensibilities. In our modern eyes, however, that still makes him something of a prig.

If his character is less than appealing, one can understand, however, the attraction of a vocal part that demands a high C almost as soon as Fernand steps on stage. Javier Camarena floats through this opening challenge, but it is in the final act of four—the most successful part of the opera—that he is most expressive, delivering the romance "Ange si pur" with intense pathos. Like much of the score, it comes from a reworking of two unfinished Donizetti operas.

The lengthy duet that follows with Annalisa Stroppa’s Leonor is poignant and affecting, as her love turns anger to compassion. Stroppa earlier has her own showstopper, "Oh, mon Fernand", the only other aria in the opera likely to merit a concert performance, which she delivers with tenderness and elegance.

Florian Sempey is an insinuating Alphonse, a decadent autocrat in foppish dress. Caterina Di Tonno is clear and bubbly as Leonor’s confidante Ines and Evgeny Stavinsky has a lovely dark chocolate tone as the abbot Balthazar.

The set is dominated by a combination of tall bars and furnishings covered in drapes, which heightens the sense of the lovers being trapped in an impermanent and uncertain existence, which Carrasco reinforces by replacing the usual dancers in the obligatory ballet required by French opera at the time.

Instead, she recruited a non-singing, non-dancing line-up of 60-something women from Bergamo, home of the Donizetti festival, to represent the King’s cast-off past favourites. It is an interesting idea, but alas it means that some of the composer’s least inspired music is rendered even more dull by watching a 20-minute dumb scene, largely of them making their morning toilette before dressing to condemn their former lover. The passage stops the dramatic momentum and might comfortably have been omitted entirely.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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