Tuesday 10 March 2015

Donizetti - La Favorite (Toulouse, 2014 - Blu-ray)

Gaetano Donizetti - La Favorite

Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, 2014

Antonello Allemandi, Vincent Boussard, Kate Aldrich, Yijie Shi, Ludovic Tézier, Giovanni Furlanetto, Alain Gabriel, Marie-Bénédicte Souquet

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

There are any number of Donizetti operas to choose from that deal with similar sentiments, but for sheer overwhelming swooning romanticism, La Favorite - the composer's 1840 four act French Grand Opéra - is hard to beat. Performed in its original French version at the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse - it's more often played in the Italian translation when it's played at all - it's given a simply gorgeous production here under the direction of Vincent Boussard that matches the warmth and the sweeping beauty of Donizetti's score and arrangements.

The subject of La Favorite has all the necessary qualities that enable such a deep, romantic treatment. It's an epic romance and an impossible love with a historical context increasing the stakes that involves the king, threatens the very fate of the nation and even has the Pope getting involved. The nature of those sentiments are fully laid out and explored in the first Act. Highlighting the fact that religious matters underlie and add to the complications that arise, Act I takes place in 14th century Spain in the monastery of St James (and to complete the construction Act IV also returns to the monastery), where a young monk, Fernand, has fallen in love with a mysterious woman. Fernand ignores the advice of his Superior Balthazar and prepares to leave his office. If he doesn't act, he knows that he might otherwise never know true happiness. All of this is accompanied by lush arrangements that capture the sweep of the cruel injustice of fate, accompanied by fervent prayers to the heavens. Giuseppe Verdi, take note.

The reason why Fernand's love is an impossible one, is that the enigmatic lady is Léonor, the "favourite", mistress of King Alfonse XI of Castille. This is also an impossible love that threatens the nation, since the King wants to divorce the Queen and thereby risk the displeasure of the Pope. Unaware of the identity of the mysterious woman he has fallen for, Fernand is taken blindfolded after leaving the monastery to meet her secretly on the island of Leon in the second scene of Act I. Warned by Léonor that cruel fate means their love can never be and that he should forget her, Fernand joins Alfonse's army where he distinguishes himself during the battles with the Moorish invaders. Fernand - still unaware of Léonor's identity and position - asks the king for her hand as a reward for his bravery. It's then that Alfonse becomes aware that his mistress has a lover. 

The subject of La Favorite has all the necessary qualities that enable Donizetti to explore familiar subjects in a deeper way with a more romantic treatment. Donizetti had of course already written a number of royal historical intrigues in his Tudor trilogy of Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux, but the tone of La Favorite is quite different. There's less of the wild contrivance and heightened emotions of bel canto singing here, the French grand opéra giving Donizetti the opportunity to adopt a more sombre tone that explores the fatalistic nature of the drama. The subject and the treatment of it here mean that the opera works almost in abstraction as a study of guilt and betrayal, but the vivid score is tied closely to the drama, which is similarly well-constructed and developed even as it elevates the highly romantic situations and fervent declarations.

Whether it's a reflection of the composer writing specifically for a French audience to a French libretto, or whether it's evidence of a growing maturity in his writing, La Favorite is indeed a more substantial work from Donizetti in this respect. There's a stronger dramatic inclination shown in the writing that is closer to Bellini and it's not hard to see that the work would form a model for many of Verdi's historical romances, even bearing comparison to Don Carlos (not coincidentally also a work written for a French audience) or at least La Forza del Destino. It's also worth noting that Wagner was a fan of La Favorite and transcribed an arrangement of the work for piano, and one also, I believe, for two violins. Echoes of the themes from Donizetti's La Favorite can even be heard in Der fliegende Höllander.

Philippe Boussard's direction of this extraordinarily beautiful production of La Favorite for the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse matches the sentiments of the work well, the simple elegance of the designs, costumes and lighting also reflecting the near-abstraction of the themes explored in the work. The sets and the stage are left fairly bare, with only really a few silhouetted arches in the background, yet much is done with light, colour and with elegant costumes designed by Christian Lacroix. With reflective surfaces and shimmering costumes, the stage is awash with crepuscular colours and luminous light. As well as looking terrific, the stage setting gives all the space and ambience required to set the essential mood and character of the piece. The melodrama practically demands that the characters in La Favorite express their feelings as if their lives depended on it, and the cast here sing it much the same way.

Although he doesn't speak the language, Yijie Shi handles Donizetti in French just as well as he does for the Rossini Italian repertoire, his lovely light lyrical tone just perfect for this work. Kate Aldrich gives an intense account of the opera's mezzo-soprano leading role as Léonor, again with good facility for the French language and with great dramatic impact. Ludovic Tézier's baritone is as smooth as ever as Alfonse, sounding very comfortable in the role, even as he exudes the menace or at least the threat to the happiness of the unfortunate couple, but Tézier ensures that there is sympathy too for his regal dilemma. This is just ideal casting. Conducting the Toulouse orchestra, Antonello Allemandi weaves purposefully through the rich and varied moods of the score, with a lightness of touch that belies the force of the dramatic tone.

The Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse production of La Favorite is released on Blu-ray by Opus Arte, and it is an absolute joy that this splendid production has been recorded so well and presented so impressively in High Definition. Visually, the production is a wash of subtle colouration, and it's handled marvellously in the transfer with terrific detail, clarity and definition in the low-lit scenes. The audio tracks are also fine, allowing you to hear the detail in Donizetti's scoring for this work. The BD includes a 38-minute collection of interviews with the main cast, Allemandi, Boussard and Christian Lacroix. The BD is all-region, subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.