Monday 29 October 2012

Belisario at the Barbican - concert review

Carolina Ungher who created the role of
Antonina in Belisario

Opera Rara’s developing relationship with BBC Radio 3 bore fruit this weekend with two events, centred on Donizetti rarities. On Saturday, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a recording of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro with David Parry conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a recording which will be issued on Opera Rara in 2013. And last night at the Barbican, Sunday 29 October 2013, Sir Mark Elder conducted a concert performance of Donizetti’s Belisario again with the BBC Symphony Orchestra; the concert being the culmination of a week of recording of the work, again for Opera Rara. Belisario was given in concert, but semi-staged by Kenneth Richardson. The singers still used scores, but there were entrances and exits, dramatic lighting and a degree of interaction between the singers. Belisario was written by Donizetti just after Lucia di Lamermoor, with the same librettist Salvadore Cammarano, though the work is perhaps not quite as fully developed as Lucia, but Elder and his forces showed that Belisario contains some vintage Donizetti.

Cammarano’s libretto is based on an existing play, and the libretto was originally written by Cammarano some time before he offered it to Donizetti and the composer was involved in the revisions to the libretto. In structure the opera text has the feel of a far longer piece which has been badly compressed, removing important transition material. What the libretto consists of is a series of very strong scenes, poorly connected. Donizetti obviously responded to the individual scenes as he contributed some powerful music. Perhaps one element of the authors struggle was caused by the title role being a baritone, rather than a soprano. The title role is very much defined by his relationships to other characters, giving us a series of extremely fine ensembles and duets, but he is ultimately denied a major death scene. The opera’s finale is sung by Belisario’s wife, who has not been on stage since the end of act 1.

What the Barbican performance showed was quite how the opera can be transformed when performed by a strong cast under a conductor who understands how Donizetti’s music works. Elder made a very strong case for the opera, demonstrating that Donizetti remedies some of the dramaturgical faults using his powerful music.

The title role was sung by the young Italian baritone, Nicola Alaimo. Alaimo sang with power and sensitivity, offering a very fine, flexible line. Singing in his native Italian, Alaimo offered a dramatic identification with the role and a feeling for Donizetti’s music which transformed the piece from a simple concert into real drama. The character’s biggest dramatic moments come in duets, with Alamiro (Russell Thomas) and Irene (Camilla Roberts), and Alaimo helped turn both of these into musical and dramatic highpoints.

The act 2 duet between Belisario and Irene, after the blinded Belisaro is released from prison, shows Donizetti approaching Verdi in the sophistication of his music for a father and daughter duet. Alaimo and Roberts created 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. Robert impressed immensely in this, showing flair and brilliance in Donizetti’s fioriture. Roberts was a sensitive participant in the rest 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, was 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 came at the opening of act 2, when Alamiro vows vengeance for the wrongs done to Belisario. Here Thomas impressed immensely.

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 perfunctory and unsatisfactory, robbing the character of Alamiro of a proper dramatic dénouement.

Thomas has quite a strong, spinto-like voice but still with the flexibility needed for the role, and with some very neat passagework. His voice was not quite ideally free at the top, but he is a young singer and I certainly hope that he continues to develop his work in this repertoire before going on to sing heavier roles; he showed a real feel for the style of this music.

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. But 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 brought glamour and the right touch of poison to Antonina, with a wonderful line in dramatic vengeance. Though it has to be admitted that her passagework was, at times, a little smudgy.

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 Belisaro returns triumphant but dying and dies before he can forgive Antonina; a masterly piece of delayed expectation. El-Khoury was 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 made a strong, and 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, made an excitingly convincing Italian opera chorus.

Elder had the off stage band situated on stage, which made for an exciting sound but a rather crowded platform. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was on top form and brought richness and power to the work. They turned the overture in a real piece of musical drama. Though in the opera there were moments when Elder rather gave the orchestra too much head, compromising the balance somewhat.

Many of the singers in this performance were new to me and, judging from the biographies, few of them are bel canto specialists. Under Elder’s guidance, they created some strongly vivid performances, with a real feeling for the style of Donizetti’s music. They combined imagination and passion, with real musicality, completely convincing us of the power of Donizetti’s drama. 

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