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Sunday, January 14, 2024



(Right: Marble bust of Donizetti by Benzoni. Pic supplied)

William Charlton-Perkins writes a regular feature for the media titled Classical Notes. This one is titled Donizetti bonanza

A retrospective of Donizetti titles from Opera Rara’s back catalogue: Rosmonda d’Inghilterra (1834); Roberto Devereux (1837); Maria de Rudenz (1838); and Maria Padilla (1841).

Of these, Maria Padilla is the label’s longest-standing representative of the prolific composer’s output. 

Released in 1980, to mark the first decade of the Opera Rara’s existence, its cast includes the Canadian soprano Lois McDonnell in the title role, with the feisty Welsh mezzo Della Jones as her sister, Ines. Tenor Graham Clark is their father, Don Ruiz di Padilla, and the South African lyric baritone, Christian du Plessis takes the role of Don Pedro, Prince of Castile. Conductor Alun Francis, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir complete the creative team, with remarkably fine outcomes.

Set in mid-14th century Castile, the gothic-noir plot is far too convoluted for a precis to render it intelligible. Suffice it to say it teams with assumed deaths, secret marriages, stabbings, and betrayals. As Act 1 opens, a chorus suffused with lovely French horns is heard, as shepherds and villagers gather, before Inez takes centre stage for her entrance scena [CD 1 Tracks 3 and 4]. Its jaunty cabaletta has Ms Jones despatching a cascade of triplets that sound for all the world like an aural succession of hurtling Catherine wheel fireworks, sending sparks flying into the inky sky. No question about it, this is an immediate highlight of this landmark recording.

(Left: Drawing of Donizetti attributed to Camerano. Pic supplied)

Another showstopper is Maria’s Act 1 aria  [CD 1, Track 7]. Other highlights are the Act 2 duet for Maria-Ines [CD 2 Tracks 5 – 7]; the Act 3 duet for Maria-Ruiz [CD 3. Tracks 3 to 6]. The opera’s third act finale ends on an exultant note with one of Donizetti’s grand rondos for the heroine, in which Ms McDonnel displays her finely-articulated trills to thrilling effect [CD 3 track 18].

The Romanian diva Nelly Miricioiu features in each of the other three titles in this retrospective – as Leonora di Guienna (Eleanor of Aquitaine) in Rosmonda d’Inghilterra (recorded in 1994); in the title role in Maria de Rudenz (1997); and as Elisabetta (Queen Elizabeth I) in Roberto Devereux (2002).


Straddled between Lucrezia Borgia and Maria Stuarda, Rosmonda was first performed in Florence in 1834. It is infused with a high level of inspiration, both melodically and dramatically, with two contrasting divas paired off against each other. The story revolves around Eleanor of Aquitaine’s murder of her husband Henry II’s mistress, Rosamund Clifford (Rosmonda). The overture shows Donizetti firing at full throttle, and listeners may recognise Rosmonda’s Act 1 scene, aria, and cabaletta, ‘Perchè non ho del vento’… ‘Torna, torna, o caro oggetto [CD 1 Tracks 12 & 13] Donizetti later re-used it in the French version of Lucia di Lammermoor, and it has been previously recorded by Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills.

Renée Fleming sings sumptuously and with great passion; Miricioiu as Eleanor is every bit the highly-strung woman one envisages. Sample her opening cavatina, ‘Ti vedrò, donzella audace’ [CD 1 Track 4] Bruce Ford is on visceral form as Henry, Alistair Miles delivers an authoritative father figure as Clifford, and the ‘trouser’ role of Arturo is taken by Diana Montague, who is granted a solo in Act 2. David Parry keeps his musical forces on a tight leash, and the sound is bright and forward.

In Maria de Rudenz, Miricioiu gives a magnificent performance, her voice in peak condition, imbuing the title role with a sense of tragic grandeur. The rest of the cast are in fine fettle, too. Reina Nathan sings a vibrant Matilde di Wolff, Maria’s cousin; baritone Robert McFarland is a sonorous Corrado di Waldorf; and the clarion-voiced Bruce Ford earns his stripes as honourably as few tenors can as Enrico, Corado’s brother.

The gruesome plot is mercifully incoherent. Here too, reprehensibly perhaps, best draw a veil over the gothic excesses and focus on the lavish melodies and visceral ensembles. Ms Miricioiu gives a plangent account of her Act 1 Cavatina and thrillingly crowns her Cabaletta with a sustained top D [CD 1 Tracks 7 & 8]. For further sampling, if you can, try the following numbers: the imposing Act 1 Finale [CD 1 Tracks 10 – 12]; Enrico’s Act 2 scene, aria, and visceral cabaletta [CD 2 Tracks 2 – 4]; the Act 2 Duet Finale between Maria and Corrado [CD 2 Tracks 6 and 7]; Maria’s splendid Rondo finale [CD 2 Tracks 14 and 15]. That said, there are hardly any lean patches in this marvellous score.

Roberto Devereux focuses on the aging Queen Elizabeth I, obsessed with her young lover, Robert, Earl of Essex. He is in love with Sara Duchess of Nottingham. Sara’s husband spills the beans to the queen, who has Robert executed. A number of recordings have done the rounds since the 1960s. Opera Rara’s version is up there with the best of them. Miricioiu, in magnificent form, earns warm applause from the audience for her beautiful embellished second stanza of her famous Act I cabaletta, ‘Ah, ritorna qual ti spero’. She is ideally cast as the imperious ‘Virgin Queen’. Haughty, passionate, and frantic in the great final Westminster scene, she provokes pandemonium in the house as the curtain comes down.

Spanish lyric tenor José Bros is surprisingly convincing in the title role, making up with incisive projection and superb articulation for what his slim-line instrument lacks in heft. Roberto Frontali and Gloria Ganassi as the Duke and Duchess are both assets to this live recording which has Maurizio Benini in his element, at the helm of the Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus.

Each recording has a generous booklet, offering comprehensive notes, the libretto, and translations, as well as galleries of historic proponents of each opera. - William Charlton-Perkins

For more information, and to purchase Opera Rara releases, visit the label’s website