Belisario was the next opera that Donizetti wrote after Lucia di Lammermoor. He wrote it for Venice for the Carnival season of 1835-36. it was the last opera to be produced in the season, there were cast problems and, frankly, Donizetti had set far better librettos. But the performances were a success and, despite the poor dramaturgy, Donizetti came up with some of his strongest music in two of the scenes.
The Venice authorities had wanted Donizetti to work with a poet based in Venice. But Donizetti insisted on working with someone who was available to him in Naples where he was based. Belisario was Salvadore Cammarano's first libretto, it had already been rejected in Naples. Changes were made, and a copy exists with Donizetti's comments so he may have been directly involved. But there are still glaring problems. Cammarano would, however, go on to write L'Assedio di Calais, Pia di Tolomei, Roberto Devereux and Poliuto for Donizetti.
The title role has no major set moment, not even an entrance aria and his death scene is brief to the point of perfunctoriness. Belisario's wife, Antonina, is the lead soprano role but after being the protagonist in act one (she is the organiser of the plot against her husband) she disappears until her final aria brings the opera to a close. And this final number is curiously written, between the cavatina and caballetta there is a huge tract of complex plot. In act two, a wonderful scene between the now blind Belisario and his daughter Irene is followed by a daft piece of plot, worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, involving a lost baby identified by a cross and dagger.
But Donizetti seems to have been genuinely stirred by the scene between Belisario and Irene, and by Antonina's final scene, and he wrote some of his strongest music. Mark Elder and his forces make the strongest case possible for the opera, demonstrating that Donizetti remedies some of the dramaturgical faults using his powerful music.
The title role is sung by the young Italian baritone, Nicola Alaimo, performing with power and sensitivity, offering a very fine, flexible line. Alaimo clearly has a feeling for Donizetti’s music, transforming the piece from into real drama. The character’s biggest dramatic moments come in duets, with Alamiro (Russell Thomas) and Irene (Camilla Roberts), and Alaimo helps turn both of these into musical and dramatic highpoints. The act 2 duet between Belisario and Irene shows Donizetti approaching Verdi in the sophistication of his music for a father and daughter duet. Alaimo and Camilla Roberts (Irene) create a believably strong relationship between the two characters and gave the duet a brilliant musical and dramatic punch.
Irene’s only other moment in the dramatic spotlight is at the opening of act 1, when she looks forward to greeting her victorious father. Here Roberts shows flair and brilliance in Donizetti’s fioriture. For the rest, she is a sensitive participant in the remainder of the opera, making the most of the fact that Irene is quite central to the drama.
Alaimo’s duet act 1 duet with Thomas, when Belisaro swears to be a father to Alamiro, is another of the dramatic high-points, with the two singers showing how combining power and flexibility in Donizetti’s music can give a musical thrill as well as bringing out the drama. Thomas’s big solo moment comes at the opening of act 2, when Alamiro vows vengeance for the wrongs done to Belisario. And here Thomas does not disappoint. However the character suffers from the way Donizetti and his librettist rather mess up the dramaturgy in act 3. Nothing can hide the fact that the scene where Belisario recognises Alamiro as his long lost son is unsatisfactory, robbing the character of Alamiro of a proper dramatic dénouement. There is however a trio at the start of act three, for Belisario, Alamiro and Irene which, though conventional, is terrific stuff and the three singers (Alaimo, Thomas and Roberts) are on great form here.
Thomas has quite a strong, spinto-like voice but still with the flexibility needed for the role, and with some very neat passagework. He shows a real feel for the style of the music and whilst he eschews any extra high notes, is quite a find.
The engine of all the drama is Belisario’s wife Antonina, sung by Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury. The part is important, but not exceptionally long. Donizetti has written a strong role, Antonina is more like a vengeful Lady Macbeth than to Lucia and Donizetti’s vocal writing brings the role closer to Verdi’s early killer soprano roles of Abigaille and Odabella. El-Khoury has a fascinating, smokily dark edge to her soprano voice, which made her ideal for this role. She brings glamour and the right touch of poison to Antonina, with a wonderful line in dramatic vengeance. It has to be admitted that her passagework was, at times, a little smudgy and she has moments of unevenness in the top register, but then again Antonina as a character is entirely on edge.
It is Antonina, now repentant and wishing to be forgiven by her husband, who closes the opera. Here again, Donizetti shows an interest in stretching the dramatic possibilities of the genre. Essentially he wrote a cavatina and cabaletta for Antonina. But between the two instead of the short dramatic dialogue that would be usual, we have the dramatic but highly compressed scene where Irene appears and narrates details of Belisario's final triumph then Belisaro returns triumphant but dying and dies before he can forgive Antonina; a masterly piece of delayed expectation. El-Khoury is on top form here, turning the aria into a show-stopper with a performance which blew away all doubts about the dramaturgy of this act.
Peter Hoare makes a wonderfully villainous Eutropo who is Antonina’s companion in villainy in act 1 (but who then disappears from the drama). It seemed luxury casting to have Julia Sporsen in the short and relatively ungrateful role of Irene’s friend, and Darren Jeffrey as a centurion in act 3. The other two small roles, Eusebio and Ottario were ably played by Edward Price and Michael Bundy from the BBC Singers.
The BBC Singers, trained by Renato Balsadonna, make an excitingly convincing Italian opera chorus. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is on top form, not only bringing richness and power to the work but sounding as if they had been playing Donizetti all their lives.
Under Elder’s guidance, everyone has created some strongly vivid performances, with a real feeling for the style of Donizetti’s music. They combine imagination and passion, with real musicality, completely convincing us of the power of Donizetti’s drama. I'm am still not sure how this piece would work on stage, but on disc Elder has created a piece of vivid and enthralling music drama.
If you buy the recording direct from Opera Rara, then it is available in a variety of formats including loss-less studio quality download.
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- British Composer Awards short list
- Ned Rorem Evidence of Things Unseen - London Song Festival
- Being a bloke - an encounter with Helen Sherman
- Musical Adventures in the Science of Hearing - The Clerks
- Angel Blue at Rosenblatt Recitals
- The Songmen - demonstrating versatility - CD review
- A quartet to watch - the Sacconi Quartet at Temple Church
- Viktoria Mullova plays Bach concertos
- First Look: Les Vepres Siciliennes
- Embarras de richesse - City Foundation Showcase Concert