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Monday, February 6, 2023



(Above: the cover of “Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal”)

William Charlton-Perkins writes a regular feature for the media titled Classical Notes. This one is titled A bel canto treasure trawl.

Continuing our exploration of Opera Rara’s back catalogue, this column focuses on two more Donizetti pieces, one petite, the other statuesque. Both emanate from the company’s ‘Elder Era’. We also salute two remarkable recitals that stem from Sir Mark’s artistic directorship, but are conducted by Carlo Rizzi, the label’s current incumbent of this august post. The changing of the guard.

(The cover of “Rita”)

The media hand-out that accompanies Opera Rara’s 2014 release of Donizetti’s Rita (1840) notes this charming three-hander, presented in a newly restored critical edition, was the company's fiftieth complete opera, and the twenty-second devoted to the Donizetti canon. The work also has the unique distinction, among his theatrical works, of having to wait for a posthumous premiere which, following a string of legal and familial vicissitudes,  finally took place at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1860. 

Sung in the original French, the two-CD recording boasts a superb cast. Katarina Karnéus in the title role makes a meal of her bossy character. Barry Banks puts a gentle spin on Pepé, the lady’s hen-pecked spouse, and is palpably relieved to take an off-ramp when Maltman enters, stage left, as Gasparo, Rita’s former husband, long presumed dead. Complicated, but which opera plot isn’t?

The ebullient score, with its up-beat waltzes and lyrical interludes, is succinctly linked by pithy dialogue, and makes for a joyous romp. The experience is enlivened by Elder’s hallmark expertise on the podium as he introduces his Hallé orchestral colleagues to this repertoire for the first time.

Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal (see above) was Donizetti’s last completed opera. This dark-hued five-act work, which premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1843, exudes many thrilling moments, not least its monumental Act 4 ensemble. Inevitably, given the sprawling template the bureaucratic Opéra’s hierarchy imposed on its stable of creatives, a few stretches of longueurs creep up. Mercifully these are negligible, and readily offset by the splendours that swirl around them.

Set in 1578, Dom Sébastien, King of Portugal, is caught between the Inquisition and war with the Moors. The scenario’s machinations are compounded by the illicit love affair between soprano and tenor. Bridging the barriers between enemy camps, this stokes the fires of political intrigue, as age-old mechanisms of deception and disguise ensue, building to a ‘sturm und drang’ finale that sees the demise of most of the principals, just as the Spanish fleet arrives to appease the turbulent Portuguese as the curtain comes down.

Recorded live over two concert performances at Covent Garden in 2005, Elder is in magisterial command of his Royal Opera House forces. Bulgarian diva Vesselina Kasarova, as the opera’s only woman, Zayda, and Giuseppe Filianoti in the title role, head a powerhouse cast that includes Alastair Miles as the Grand Inquisitor, and Simon Keenlyside as the chieftain, Abayaldos.

Suggested key moments to sample include Zayda’s Romance, ‘Que faire? Où cacher ma tristesse?’ [CD 1, Track 13]; her Act 3 duet with Abayaldos, ‘Pour éteindre une guerre aux deux’ ….. ‘C’est qu’en tous lieux’ [CD 2, Tracks 11 & 12 ], and the grand ensemble of Act 4. And most of all, Sébastien’s great solo, ‘Seul sur la terre’ that brings the curtain down on Act 2 [Cd2 Track 10].

I would add, this being a live recording (though any applause has here been edited out), that the tender beauty of this performance must have brought the audience to its feet. Delivering his take on Donizetti’s famous warhorse, Mr Filianoti proudly carries the flag aloft.

(Right: Michael Spyres on the cover of “Espoir”)

This celebrated aria, famed for its far-flung lyricism and stratospheric tessitura, forms the jaw-dropping centrepiece of virtuoso American tenor Michael Spyres’ opera recital disc, Espoir

Together with its companion disc, titled Écho, and starring the superbly gifted Canadian Lebanese soprano, Joyce El Khoury, each is recorded with the Hallé Orchestra and Carlo Rizzi, and curated by Opera Rara’s Repertoire Consultant, Roger Parker.


(Left: Joyce El Khoury on the cover of “Echo”)

 They feature a selection of mainly French arias made famous, and in many cases, given their world premières, by two of the brightest stars of the bel canto era: the tenor extraordinaire, Gilbert Duprez, renowned, equally for his superhuman power at Olympian extreme of his voice, and his prowess as a lyric tenor;  and the astonishingly prolific Julie Dorus-Gras, regarded as the soprano of choice by leading composers of her day, due to her immense virtuosity, and her legendary ability to transform her voice from one ‘fach’ to another.

Featured composers on Écho and Espoir include Donizetti, Rossini, Verdi, and Berlioz, as well as lesser-known names such as Auber, Halévy and Hérold. While released as solo discs, both Spyres and El Khoury duet on each other’s recordings, while honouring their respective muses with incomparable distinction.

As frequently noted in these returns to Opera Rara’s Elysium Fields, it’s virtually impossible to single out a ‘must-hear’ in either case.

If threatened with expulsion, I’d have to revert to Mr Spyres’ astounding ‘Seul sur la terre’ in which he draws a perfect arch to a miraculous high E in full voice, all on a seamlessly sustained legato.

As for an illustration of Ms El-Khoury’s sublime artistry, I’d be hard pressed in choosing between her shimmering account of Agathe’s glorious aria from Weber’s Der Freischütz, sung here in its French translation, with Berlioz’s wonderful recitative offered up in homage to his idol. Or, indeed, the soprano’s sublime account of ‘Les belles feurs’ from the latter master’s Benvenuto Cellini, an opera which I hold sacred. - William Charlton-Perkins

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