Donizetti’s opera “La Favorite,” originally written in French for the L’Opera, Paris, was quickly translated into Italian, and soon became the preferred version. However, in the last quarter of the 20th century this trend was reversed and today it is the French version that is more widely performed, and for the first time, Florence’s Teatro Maggio Musicale Fiorentino has decided to present Donizetti’s opera in the original language.
Although not a completely neglected work, “La Favorite” has never really established itself as part of the regular mainstream repertoire. Musically it has much to recommend it, but the libretto has structural weaknesses, which too easily lead to static and lackluster performances. For this production, both Fabio Luisi, the conductor, and the director, Ariel Garcia-Valdès, have opted to present the work as an intimate and personal drama. Eschewing the idea of “La Favorite” as a Grand Opera, they are of the opinion that the political context of the work has no relevance to the piece, and that, despite the inclusion of a ballet which was not retained for this production, “La Favorite” does not have the breadth of a Grand Opera as in the style of, for example, “Les Vepres siciliennes” or “Don Carlo.” Moreover, they maintain that the chorus should be viewed as a protagonist in its own right, citing Fernand’s act three dialogue as pertinent example to justify the decision. While such observations are undoubtedly correct, emphasizing this aspect of the drama had knock-on effects for the whole production, effects that were not wholly positive, not least on how the chorus itself was employed, and consequently and more damaging, on how it impacted on the opera’s underlying static nature.
Garcia-Valdès was supported in this production by Jean-Pierre Vergier (scenographer and costume design) and Dominique Borrini (lighting). They created some visually pleasing scenes, adorned with a chorus dressed in colorfully designed traditional costumes, highlighted by some imaginative lighting. Describing them as picturesque would be the perfect adjective to use, as not only were they appealing to the eye, they were also very static, movement was always kept to a minimum. Moreover, apart from the occasional stunning mise-en-scene, the scenery was dull and ill-thought through. It was as if Vergier was so keen to create certain scenes that he sacrificed the overall effect. The set consisted primarily of a single rotating large stone construction which acted as the inside and outside of a monastery, the inside of the Alcazar Palace and of a rock face on the island. Its effectiveness was extremely limited and did little to add to, or elevate the impact of the work. In particular, act one was painfully dull, comprising solely of the grey stone structure against a light blue background. Props were rarely used. Having said that, there were parts that did work and looked impressive, for example in act three the stone structure was used to construct a wall, which acted as a backdrop to the drama, and generated an oppressive and foreboding atmosphere, which successfully heightened the unfolding dramatic tension. Yet, even this act was not fully successful, as it ignored the opportunity to magnify the contrast by failing to introduce any form of splendor or magnificence at the beginning of the act when King Alphonse receives Fernand, in order to reward his services to the Crown. Scene two, act one was a further example of an excellent single idea being employed at the expense of the act as a whole. A grey rock was stationed at the right side of the stage, with a jetty jutting out into the sea. From behind the rock a boat emerged and docked at the jetty, from which Fernand alighted. Wonderful! But for the rest of the act the chorus, along with the principal singers, were forced to act out their parts on the confined space of the jetty, which, despite some picturesque moments, did not work and restricted movement.
Unfortunately, many of Garcia-Valdés’ decisions magnified the libretto’s underlying failing, so that the work’s static nature was allowed to weigh heavily upon the performance. To a large extent this was caused by his management of the chorus – too often they were simply too inactive. Possibly because Garcia-Valdès wanted to present the chorus as having a single face, in order to emphasize the idea of the chorus as a distinct character, their movement was always constrained, and often choreographed so that they acted as a single unified body. Similarly, the principal singers generally employed understated movements and gestures. At times, especially during ensembles, this production gave the impression of being a costumed concert performance. Moreover, the dramatic impact was too often sacrificed for aesthetic considerations, which in itself may have worked, but needed a more consistent vision.
A Saving Grace
If Garcia-Valdès’ direction lacked the necessary drive to successfully engage, the same can not be said about the musical side of the production, in which the audience was treated to some excellent singing, with the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale, under the direction of Fabio Luisi, in splendid form.
Luisi exerted a masterful level of control over the orchestra which he used to elicit a finely detailed reading of the score; no detail, no matter how fine, was ignored. The balance between the orchestral sections was carefully coordinated. Often opting for slow tempi and sharp dynamic contrasts Luisi expertly exploited the score’s multilayered textures. Melodic elegance being its defining quality. It was an impressive performance. If there was one criticism that could be made of the orchestral performance it was that there was a lack of spontaneity – although it feels to churlish to mention the fact so excellently did they perform. Yet, its effect was to magnify the leaden onstage movement and add to the static feel of the performance.
The balance between stage and pit was in perfect harmony, at least with respect to the soloists. However, there was, at times, a noticeable disconnect between the pit and chorus. The right balance seemed to elude them. Frequently, the chorus, which was of a substantial size, was subdued and failed to match the orchestra’s dynamic, regardless of its level. Saying that at other times the chorus performed admirably, bringing a vibrant and powerful sound into the auditorium. If Lorenzo Fratini, Maestro del Coro, did not manage to elicit a dynamic consistency, he did create a wonderful unified and clear sound, with a variety of colorful textures.
The mezzo-soprano Veronica Simeoni, playing the part of Léonor, put in a five-star performance. Not only did the role fit her voice perfectly, but she allowed it to infuse her whole being. She truly became Léonor, her emotional state informing every aspect of the vocal performance. She modeled the vocal line through subtle dynamic and vocal inflections, backed by an array of colors to create a thoroughly believable Léonor. The act three showcase aria, “O mon Fernand,” in which she sings of her love for Fernand, but also of her dread that he may reject her, was delivered with great sensitivity and subtlety, in which every line was perfectly phrased to portray her conflicting emotions.
Celso Albelo has a wonderfully sweet sounding tenor. He is able to spin out long lines that are able to draw in the listener, and technically met the demands of the role without any signs of vocal stress. From his opening aria, “Un Ange, une femme,” to the final duet with Léonor, “Viens, viens, je cède éperdu,” he was a real joy to listen to. If you closed your eyes the effect would be sheer delight as the mind would be transported by the succulent and liquid sound of his voice. However, this is an opera, and the eyes remain open. Albelo, for all his vocal qualities, failed to characterize the part with sufficient depth. His acting was, at times, wooden and there was insufficient attention given to inflecting the voice with the necessary degree of emotional subtlety. Whether singing of his love for Léonor or his anger at Alphonse’s betrayal, Albelo sang with consistent beauty, despite the drama that was unfolding about him.
Mattia Oliveri cut an imposing figure, both physically and vocally as King Alphonse. He acted with the requisite aloofness expected of a monarch, emotionally restrained and cold, but with flashes of anger and latent violence. His voice is strong and flexible with a rich warm texture, which he used with a great deal of finesse to characterize the role. He played his part superbly in the pivotal third act, not only did he deliver the aria “Pour tant d’amore” with impressive style, but also imposed himself forcefully in the confrontations with Fernand and with Léonor, one of the dramatic high points of the evening. It was an excellent performance indeed.
Ugo Guagliardo essaying the role of Balthazar looked the part; bearded, severe and dressed in the usual monk’s attire. His voice has a dark timbre, and although he made a good overall impression he was, at times, inconsistent. Sometimes he was able to dominate the scene, as would be expected from such a zealot, for example during the opening scene of act one, while at other times he was sidelined, overpowered by Leonora, Fernand, and Alphonse, most notably towards the end of act three. However, at all times his singing has a refined quality.
Francesca Longari and Manuel Amati, artists from the Accademia del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, were parted in the minor roles of Inès and Don Gaspar. Amati showed himself to be a very good actor. In his brief time on the stage, he managed to portray Don Gaspar as thoroughly dislikable and sinister creature. He backed this up with a fine vocal performance, inflecting the voice with sufficient venom to convince in the role. Longari also put in a solid performance as Léonor’s maid, displaying a vibrant and lively stage presence.
This was a high-quality musical fest, but one that never engaged on a dramatic level. This could easily have been presented as a costumed concert performance and would have deprived the audience of very little, save for one or two static scenes which were colorful, well-balanced and pleasant to the eye.