Gaetano Donizetti - La Favorite
Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016
Karel Mark Chichon, Amélie Niermeyer, Elīna Garanča, Matthew Polenzani, Mariusz Kwiecień, Mika Kares, Joshua Owen Mills, Elsa Benoit
Staatsoper.TV Live - 6th November 2016
On the surface, La Favorite has a melodramatic plot of contrivance, misfortune and happenstance that results in the inevitable tragic ending for the leading lady. It's one that is typical of bel canto opera and Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor, Linda di Chamounix, Anna Bolena). La Favorite in fact seems even more over the top than usual, with religion, court intrigue and war heroism all crashing together in a spectacular fashion within the remit of a tragic love triangle. Behind it all however there is the touching and tragic personal story of a woman crushed by huge forces beyond her control, and the Bayerische Staatsoper's 2016 production focuses in on this human element of Donizetti's rich work to brilliant effect.
There is certainly a risk of that human element being lost within the vast scale of the plot and the immense stature of the personalities involved. The human element is principally within the figure of Léonor de Guzman, a woman who is secretly the mistress, the 'favourite', of King Alfonse XI of Castille. Their illicit union however doesn't escape the notice of the Pope, who issues a Papal decree denouncing the king's intention to divorce the Queen and risk placing the nation under threat. The king sees a way out of the problem, agreeing to a marriage between Léonor and Fernand, a captain in his army who has distinguished himself in the nation's wars, but the king has another agenda, having just discovered that Fernand is already Léonor's lover.
Even the history of Léonor's affair with Fernand is shrouded in romantic intrigue and secrecy; Fernand leaving the monastery of St James where he is a novice monk to follow a mysterious woman he is in love with, Léonor necessarily keeping their meetings hidden from the King. Behind all the huge religious, political and royal intrigues however is a woman who is the victim of all these forces; the mistreated and abused mistress of the king, a fallen woman reviled by the Catholic Church, scorned by the royal court who laugh at her "sordid affair", and eventually abandoned by her lover over his deep sense of "honour". These grand forces might take a literal representation in the libretto, but Donizetti's score has a way of showing how they affect women in the abstract.
Donizetti's music is often underrated and indeed in some works it is rather rudimentary in its rhythms and dramatic effects. Composed for the Paris stage, and presented in that original French version here in Munich, the work is considerably more sophisticated than Donizetti is often given credit for. On the grand scale, the collision of such vast forces looks towards Verdi's Don Carlos, but on the intimate and more personal level, Fernand's rejection of the fallen woman Léonor at the altar is equal in force of sentiment and dramatic impact to Alfredo's repudiation of Violetta in La Traviata. Perhaps even more so, since the royal court also round on Léonor in a mass chorus that proclaims "His revenge is noble indeed", in response to Fernand's act.
The key to not letting such highly charged scenes and lofty personalities overwhelm the human tragedy of Léonor's fate is, evidently, restraint. Donizetti's score suggests bombast, but it invites intimacy and a more nuanced approach. The extravagant bel canto histrionics are not there in La Favorite, nor is there is any mad scene to show off the agility and range of the soprano. Léonor is scored for a mezzo soprano, and the timbre is darker, the role more dramatic, but still lyrical and still extremely challenging. Elīna Garanča is restrained in her gestures, almost holding back too much, but a deeper response to the turns of events is there to be brought out and it can be fully felt in her singing delivery. It's an impressively and yet unshowy performance.
Highlighting Léonor's fate as the core of the opera's greatness is the main element that points to another success for the Bayerische Staatsoper following on from their live broadcast of an impressive Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg last month. It seems like many of the previous directorial excesses of the opera house have been scaled back without losing any of the freshness, modernity and inventiveness of their productions. Amélie Niermeyer's direction pays attention to the tone of the opera, to the narrative drama and to the subtext. There's an attention to detail in the characterisation that avoids the broad brushstrokes that the overly-orchestrated plot would seem to invite.
The attention to detail and to the human side of the work is not just reflected in Léonor, but there is effort made to humanise the other characters too. Most notably - even if its "humanising" on a rather more base level - the director uses the interval music between Act I and II to show us another side to King Alfonse. Sitting beside Léonor while a light display suggests they are watching a lurid TV drama, many facets of Alfonse the man are shown, his arrogance and machismo, his boyish playfulness, his sleazy possessiveness of Léonor, pawing over her, but also his romantic fervour. It's a terrific use of Donizetti's music to develop character without distorting it. It has to be said that Mariusz Kwiecień is quite brilliant in running through this range in a fantastic dumbshow display, and his singing and performance in the more conventional kingly role is equally assured and impressive.
Matthew Polenzani is doing great work on the Munich stage, and he's well cast here as a dramatic lyrical Verdi tenor instead of a more romantic bel canto singer like Juan Diego Flórez or Yijie Shi (who sang the role in Toulouse). His voice is not a big one, but it's expressive and he can do much with a role like Fernand. That said, Fernand is not a figure who comes out of the work with a clear or nuanced position, swayed between love and God, working himself up from monk to warrior, with little opportunity for any real human character to be expressed, but Polenzani does what he can with the arias and is always engaging in voice and in performance.
La Favorite shows what opera at its best can do, elevating the human experience to an epic scale, and reducing epic scale down into relatable human experience. The Munich production sees a woman's life within the context of the unforgiving forces of religion and masculine power, judged by their standards and unable to exert any control over her own life and love. Donizetti's music is masterfully up to the task and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, directed with force, vigour and sensitivity by Karel Mark Chichon show just how sophisticated Donizetti's writing can be and just how much of an impact his operas can make. This is another outstanding production in what is so far an impressive broadcast season at the Bavarian State Opera House in Munich.
The next live broadcast from Munich is Shostakovich's LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK on 4th December 2016 at 7pm (C.E.T.), conducted by Kirill Petrenko and directed by Harry Kupfer.
Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV