Gaetano Donizetti - L'Ange de Nisida
Fondazione Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo, 2019
Jean-Luc Tingaud, Francesco Micheli, Florian Sempey, Roberto Lorenzo, Konu Kim, Lidia Fridman, Federico Benetti
Dynamic - Blu ray
Although it was always a mark of prestige, 19th century Italian opera composers often ran into considerable difficulties when writing for the Paris stage. For all the work involved, major operas would often receive limited performances and end up in now more familiar Italian versions that were cut back for an Italian audience and to avoid censorship, the French originals often almost lost in the process. Verdi managed to rework his French compositions into Italian versions with variable success, but the French versions are still rarely performed, and in the case of Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims, the lost opera was only recovered in 1984. The rediscovery and new critical editions of these works is therefore always fascinating, but few involve as much effort in reconstruction and revival as Donizetti's lost opera L'ange de Nisida.
L'ange de Nisida is such a rarity that not only did Donizetti never see it performed, the work has actually never even been fully staged until this Fondazione Teatro Donizetti production in Bergamo in 2019. The original French opera was abandoned when the Renaissance Theatre in Paris went bankrupt in May 1840 and it appears that any original manuscripts of the opera were dismembered and overwritten to be reused in the composer's next French opera, La Favorite. As a consequence there remained no complete score to be unearthed from the archives. Even the French version of the new work La Favorite is itself a rarity, but anyone who has seen it in one of several recent productions (Toulouse 2014, Munich 2016) and recognised it for the gem it is, will be fascinated to see the work it derived from restored and reconstructed.
Not unexpectedly, La Favorite not only has musical similarities with L'ange de Nidisa but since the music was written for specific situations, the opera shares similar characterisation, plotting and themes. Not that it was ever a complicated plot in the first place. Essentially both works boil down to a ruler who is taking advantage of a young girl that he cannot marry. Here, Don Fernand d'Aragon's lover is La comtesse Sylvia Linarès, an innocent girl whose circumstances as the king's mistress are so unfortunate that she is regarded as an angel by the population of the island of Nisida. In order to appease the Pope, who is scandalised by the arrangement, Fernand marries Sylvia off to a soldier, Leone, unaware that the brave young man who has fled Naples is in love with her. Realising he is being used however causes something of a crisis of conscience for Leone and he rejects Sylvia, retreating to a monastery. With tragic consequences, evidently.
That's more or less it, and barring some reconfiguration of the characters and situations, it's very similar to La Favorite. The plot might appear thin, short on any real incident, the anguish and sentiments over-stretched by the musical and vocal extravagance, but - much like La Favorite - the settings certainly provide Donizetti with the opportunity to deliver colourful musical drama in the form of regal choruses, religious sentiments and solemn chastisements that cover personal moments of love, anguish and confusion, all leading to the kind of melodramatic tragic conclusion that Donizetti does better than most.
The challenge of staging any Donizetti opera is making its plot half way credible, but the material is there to work with. Despite the apparent lightness of the melodies and conventional numbers, there is often a darkness in the stories that is actually reflected in the musical composition. Compared to Linda di Chamounix or La Favorite, Donizetti perhaps doesn't succeed quite as well here in capturing the depth of feeling or the dark undercurrents of personal suffering, loss of pride and innocence in an abusive relationship by a supposedly respectable person of power. If it feels like there is a lot of French opera and Baroque opera hangover "filler" in L'ange de Nisida, Donizetti nonetheless delivers the key moments of sweeping sentiments with thunderous and thrilling crescendos.
The material is there if a director wants to probe the dark corners of the work, but you can't fault Francesco Micheli's adventurous production for Bergamo, nor could you complain of any failings in the musical or singing performances under the musical direction of Jean-Luc Tingaud. If the idea is to make the drama a little more three-dimensional the production succeeds to a large extent by the opening up of the Teatro Donizetti while it was in the process of being restored, the stalls area without seats becoming the stage and a bank of stalls seats moved up onto the stage. The opera is then performed in the round, with Tingaud conducting the orchestra facing away from the stage.
Whether this plays any part in opening up the work at all, it does nonetheless find a fresh way to consider the work and even enhance its character as a rarity. There is actually a valid underlying idea behind this, seeing the composition and reconstruction of the opera in the context of renovating the Teatro Donizetti, the floor littered in the first half with scattered pages, with even the "death" of the opera being suggested at the conclusion. There are numerous little touches like this - even some of the costumes are made of paper - all of which add to the unique character of the production without over-stretching the work beyond its limitations. One practical intervention is where the Naples mob that Leone fought in Act I come back at the conclusion to find a way to explain Sylvia's sudden death, and by granting the king his vengeance it does add to the darkness at the heart of the work.
Partly through adapting his work for a French audience but also undoubtedly to a growing maturity in the writing, there's less of Donizetti's ostentatious cabalettas and virtuoso coloratura in L'ange de Nisida, the vocal arrangements more attuned - notwithstanding the melodramatic and high romantic sentiments - to a more relatable human level of dramatic expression. The vocal challenges are still there however and if you just want to enjoy the musical qualities of the opera purely for the singing, this production presents it at very high standard indeed. Lidia Fridman is superb, a darkly blazing Sylvia, Konu Kim lyrical as Leone, and the roles of King Fernand (Florian Sempey), Gaspar (Roberto Lorenzo) and the monk (Federico Benetti) are all full of character. The performance and impact of the chorus - often performing from the gods - is spectacular.
The image quality on the Dynamic Blu-ray is very good considering that the complications of camera positioning, lighting and downward projections lead to some slight variations of tone and colouration. In the main however the performance is captured well with plenty of closeups and angles that you wouldn't normally get on a DVD recording. The audio recording and mixing is also a little variable, but again mostly down to the unconventional staging and the rustling of the beautifully designed paper costumes. The mixing isn't quite right in Act I, Don Gaspar's mic sounds artificially boosted, overwhelming the music, but this soon balances out and both stereo and surround mixes carry a warm musical accompaniment. Occasionally, there are minor continuity differences noted in visual and audio syncing from editing several performances together.
The extra features on the BD/DVD release are very informative. There's a very engaging interview with the director on the disc that explains his ideas for the production well and gives some background to how it was developed. The accompanying booklet contains a fascinating account and analysis of the historical place of L'ange de Nisida as well as a thorough examination of how it was reconstructed though extensive research by Candida Mantova, detailing the thought processes behind the editorial decisions made in order to present an authentic and complete performing score with as little compromise as possible. The BD50 disc is all region compatible and has subtitles in French, English, Italian, German, Japanese and Korean.
Links: Fondazione Teatro Donizetti