Donizetti Festival 2022 Review: La Favorite

Florian Sempey & Javier Camarena Shine In the Deeply Reflective Production of Valentina Carrasco

By Polina Lyapustina

Who could outshine the great Javier Camarena singing “La Favorite” on the stage of the famous Donizetti festival? A consummate master of Bel Canto, singing the role of the head-over-heels-in-love novice, leaving the monastery to meet the woman of his dreams. Ah, we were certainly hooked on it.

And yet, this year in Bergamo, the audience had to prepare to meet another scene steeler. 

You may guess that it was a moment of freedom for Riccardo Frizza, who was so inspired by the opportunity to work with the full, uncensored score. And so his reading was given a rare beauty too. You could feel Donizetti’s Gran Opera in all its large and vivid sound, wide rhythmic range, and smartly led-up moments of tension.

Or was it Annalisa Stroppa, with her deeply sensual honey mezzo, who gave all of herself to this role? Or Florian Sempey, who overcame the dread of critics on his voice being too light for this role, and brought a magnificent Alphonse XI to the stage, more natural and believable than those darker and maturer kings of the past? The excellent performers are more than worthy of the long ovation received, but still, it’s not about them that I want to talk about the most.

Out of Oblivion

The stage is unlit, and with some layers of curtains still down, we can barely see Léonor wandering across the stage in dismay. In the background, the dark shadows of older ladies watch her, and she is frozen inside from their glances or maybe just looking at them. It seems like a dark prediction of the future, but we all know it won’t happen, so, why is this picture so dark and heavy, almost impossible to bear?

With this powerful reflection, Valentina Carrasco starts her version of this tale. Her approach is very straightforward. The director is not going to tell us just another dramatic love story. And she places the sharp social theme in the first line, just as we hear the first sounds of music. 

Who are those women at the rear? Are they just a background? No-no, we shouldn’t say that, should we? Yes, they are, and this is another sharp statement from the director. 

What we don’t know yet, while the prelude is playing, is that the title character is afraid of any turndowns or denials from them. The most frightening part is to take her place among them. Who are they? They are not listed among the characters. Yet, they were always there, and only the blind could not see them.

And Donizetti was never blind. 

The opera is titled “La Favorite,” and it’s a statement too.

“The role of the king’s favorite was more important than who was currently occupying it,” said Carrasco in official statements on the production. “These women, who became the favorites, lost their identity, without a proper name, they were like flowers that never fully open. They were women who lived segregated, waiting for the visit of the man who held the destiny in his hand.”

And once you lose the king’s favor, you have no other life to live, and here is how you become just a shady background. 

The director attempts to bring these women out of oblivion and gives them much attention and stage time. To this end, she cleverly adapts a few musical episodes for dances returned to the opera in the new critical edition by Rebecca Harris-Warrick, especially for the festival. 

It’s their finest hour. These women are finally showing their underbelly because even at their best of times they had no right to be themselves, destined to be always beautiful and shiny. Now we see these ladies of all ages sleeping, awakening, putting makeup on, and suffering their routine. Being preferred to the new, younger, and more beautiful woman, they too, remember the time when they were favored. 

In beautiful ballet outfits, they dance their life through, locked in a common room, which looks such a peaceful place, but the cage is never peaceful. That is why, once the king, by mistake or through sheer stupidity, turns out to be among them, they kiss him wildly, but the pressure is so heavy that he bursts out from them disheveled and in fright.

Carrasco proposes a parallel with the invisibility of the elderly in our time when life expectancy has greatly increased, but not that much is done to increase the quality of life for elder people. Not to remain unsubstantiated, the director invites real women of Bergamo to take part in the performance, and it’s them who flooded the stage with their truly powerful presence. You can never say that they are not professional actors, they give themself generously, not less than the main heroine. 

The Key

And this is the key. This topic of going down from the top, like debuting the beautiful and powerful role at the Donizetti festival, to the natural aging and slow loss of one’s beauty, health, and voice. We all know it comes. And we all fear. But we never talk. In our society of positive thinking, we only praise those who age naturally but beautifully. What about those who don’t do so? They are shifted by society into the shadows so as not to disturb us. We don’t want them to have names, because by those names we can discover their stories and find out frighteningly that we are following the same path. 

But Léonor has learned it already. The path she has never chosen herself will never bring her a happy and calm future. And maybe saying that would ruin the romantic plot, but who would not like to escape such destiny with another man? Fernand might simply be her chance. 

And losing it, the title character, the favorite, she lost her future as Léonor, and so she dies. The romantics say from broken heart, I say today — rejecting the future with no name that is prescribed to her by society. 

The new production of La Favorite in Bergamo brought so many beautiful moments for opera lovers – the outstanding cast, a wonderful extended edition of the opera, great work in the field of stage design and lighting by Carles Berga and Peter van Praet. And the amazing storytelling choreography by Massimiliano Volpini. All these were capped by the never-ending ovations at the last performance, closing the official program. 

And yet, this night, I cannot stop thinking of those women in ballet tutus flooding the stage, and their stories left behind. And the next morning, I thought and reflected about every woman and every man I was preferred over — socially, naturally, and professionally. Where have they gone, what have I won by that, what have I lost, and when will my time come to be replaced? And where then will be my new place?


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