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Monday, October 3, 2022



(The cover for “Les Martyrs”)

Classical Notes: William Charlton Perkins

William Charlton-Perkins surveys Opera Rara’s audio releases of Les Martyrs and L’Ange de Nisida.

During his watch as Opera Rara’s Artistic Director (2011-2019), British conductor Sir Mark Elder led the company on several ground-breaking new ventures. Notable among these was expanding the horizons the label had traditionally scanned in excavating forgotten repertoire of the lyric stage, to include the genre of French grand opéra.

Over the span of its first five decades, Opera Rara focused pretty much on the Italian bel canto masters, homing in particularly on the prolific oeuvre of Gaetano Donizetti.

Having broken through the glass ceiling with his award-winning 2006 release of Donizetti’s 1843 French grand opéra, Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal, Elder went on to restore to circulation, two further titles from composer’s Parisian years, Les Martyrs (1840), and the long-abandoned (and heroically reconstructed) L’Ange de Nisida.

(The cover of “L’Ange de Nisida”)

Released by Opera Rara in 2015, Les Martyrs, rarely heard since its première on April 10, 1840, was Donizetti’s first magnum opus for Paris (and Opera Rara’s 23rd salute to the composer). The project featured an outstanding cast including Michael Spyres Joyce El-Khoury, David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt, Clive Bayley, and Wynne Evans, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), and the Opera Rara Chorus.

A tragic tale of early Christian martyrdom, Les Martyrs came into being following the banning of its former manifestation, the Italian opera, Poliuto. Commissioned by the San Carlo in Naples, the latter came under the axe of the city’s notoriously capricious censors, due to its religious content. Donizetti disgustedly broke contract with the Neapolitan Royal Theatres and headed north for Paris.

Honouring his commitment to revise Poliuto for the Opéra de Paris, the composer went to considerable pains. He rigorously remoulded his renamed work to accommodate the grandiose template demanded by Parisian audiences. Besides the obligatory ballet, he wrote an expansive new overture, along with heady new solos for the lead tenor, and several climactic ensembles. Despite its enthusiastic reception, however, Les Martyrs failed to hold the stage. By mid-century it had fallen into obscurity, where it lay until its rescue under the aegis of Opera Rara.

One of the hallmarks of Elder’s successive triumphs with Donizetti (his Opera Rara discography alone numbers five titles), is the integrity and keen sense of perspective he brings to his interpretation of each score. Under his baton, Les Martyrs takes on a life force that declares itself from the outset. Elder brings unfailing passion and finesse to the work’s new critical edition, drawing performances from his entire company that ensure the project runs on all cylinders. The OAE’s sound is viscerally alive and finely balanced. Witness the exquisite detail in the three dances of the Act 3 divertissement, for example. These afford a telling sample of the superb sound reproduction.

The wind soloists are joyously in evidence in their obligato solos, relishing their lead-in passages to several arias, as if challenging the singers to feats of virtuosity. Elder’s magisterial beat is expansive and pliant in turns, building the work’s grand climaxes to their full potential.

Soloists and chorus seize their moments as they step into focus, while ensuring accomplished ensemble delivery overall. American tenor Michael Spyres lives up to the eulogies earned on stages around the world, relishing the all-but impossible hurdles that Donizetti cast at the clarion-voiced Gilbert Duprez, creator of Polyeucte. Spyres’ performance displays both elegance and dramatic heft, capped with an interpolated top E that sets one’s spine tingling.

His performance is offset with panache by Joyce El Khoury. The Canadian Lebanese soprano shows impeccable command of bel canto style, her finely-schooled phrasing underpinning her portrayal of Pauline, brought vividly to life. El-Khoury’s distinctive timbre and patrician musicality had me reminiscing over her illustrious predecessor, Sena Jurinac. A highlight of the recording is El-Khoury and Spyres, exultantly riding the crest to their great duet, O sainte mélodie (Track 59), which gives way to a blazing tutte finale.

Les Martyrs merits all the accolades that have been showered upon it since its release. As indeed does Opera Rara’s singular feat of scholarship, determination, and dedication, in bringing about the 2019 world premiere of Donizetti’s all-but-forgotten L’Ange de Nisida.

One of the first works the Italian composer set to work on, when he arrived in the French capital in 1838, L’Ange de Nisida was commissioned by the Théâtre de la Renaissance. Then the theatre went bankrupt in May 1840, and the creative process halted in its tracks. The ever-pragmatic composer recycled nearly half the material into the creation of his next piece, La favorite, which premiered at the Paris Opéra at the close of that year.

The Olympian task of assembling and creating a performing version of L’ange de Nisida – salute to Opera Rara’s indefatigable team - took more than a decade to bring off. Not least this achievement is reportedly due to the tireless work of musicologists Candida Mantica and Martin Fitzpatrick.

There are marked plot parallels between L’ange and La favorite. The heroine of each is loved by rival suitors, sadly dying just as her chances of happiness and redemption can prevail. The redoubtable Ms El-Khoury again takes the title role lead, here essaying the character of Sylvia. She appears opposite the immensely-gifted young Korean tenor, David Junghoon Kim, with baritones Laurent Naouri and Vito Priante completing the roster of principals with distinction.

Elder conducts this richly attractive score with all the love and insight he brought to his previous projects. He imbues the work’s lighter passages with irrepressible buoyancy, buffering the characters’ moments of passionate emotion with a fine sense of empathy, as when he brings out sublimely beautiful playing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra horn section.

Newcomer David Junghoon Kim crowns his astonishingly accomplished rendering of the male lead, Leone, with an introspective ‘Hélas! Envolez-vous, beaux songes’; followed by a plangently executed phrase in the winds and strings.

El Khoury is simply wonderful throughout her demanding role. Her virtuoso account of her Act 3 aria, Frais ombrage, with its ensuing cabaletta, provokes a storm of applause from the ROH audience, whose exemplary silence throughout the duration of this live recording only adds to its frisson.

L’Ange de Nisida is a labour of love that cannot be praised too highly. – William Charlton-Perkins


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