Tuesday 19 February 2013

La Favorite in Paris

La Favorite, Teatre des Champs Elysees, Alice Coote, Ludovic Tezier (c)Vincent Pontet Wikispectacle
Alice Coote, Ludovic Tezier
(c) Vincent Pontet, Wikispectacle
French grand operas written for Paris by Italian composers have a tendency to become known in their Italian incarnations, a process which can often corrupt the piece. Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi all took some care to produce French language operas, and it is a welcome development that these are becoming better known in their original versions. Donizetti's La Favorite which was written for Paris in 1840 is perhaps not his greatest opera. It was hastily assembled after the rejection of the one planned for the Paris Opera, but as with much late Donizetti, there is much to enjoy. We travelled to Paris to see the new production of the opera at the Theatre des Champs Elysees on Sunday 17 February 2013.

In 1840, after Donizetti wrote Les Martyrs for the Paris Opera (adapted from Poliuto), he had a number of other projects on the go in Paris. Le Duc d'Alba was a further opera for the Opera, he planned to perform the French version of Lucia di Lammermoor, La Fille du Regiment for the Opera Comique plus a pair of operas for the Theatre de la Renaissance including a new one called L'Ange de Nisida. As ever with the best laid plans, fate had other ideas. The company at the Theatre de la Renaissance collapsed before performing Donizetti's operas. And the leading lady in Le Duc d'Alba refused to perform it; Rosine Stoltz was not only a reigning diva, but also the mistress of the director of the Opera. Thus Donizetti was left short of a grand opera. With the help of librettist Eugene Scribe, L'Ange de Nisida was transposed from 15th century Naples to 14th century Spain and became La Favorite. The historical setting, the addition of an overture and a ballet, created a work suitable for the Opera. The sole female lead, Leonor, was written specifically with the mezzo-soprano voice of Rosine Stoltz in mind.

In fact, for a French grand opera La Favorite is relatively compressed, just four acts, under 150 minutes of music and little in the way of grand ceremonial scenes. It was a success, however, being played nearly 700 times between its premiere in 1840 and 1918 when it was dropped. For the creation of an Italian version, censors got involved, cuts were made and it was in this bastardised version that the work became known in the 20th century.

For the new production at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris (a co-production with Radio France), the original French version of the opera was given a welcome outing with a substantially Francophone cast. Alice Coote sang Leonor, Marc Laho sang Fernand, with Ludovic Tezier as Alphonse XI, Carlo Colombara as Balthazar, Loic Felix as Don Gaspar and Judith Gauthier as Ines.

The plot involves a hero in love with a woman loved by the King; there is a mezzo-soprano in love with the hero but the King's mistress; a powerful cleric who acts as the King's conscience. Sound familiar, perhaps not quite but the plot has many of the elements of Verdi's Don Carlos, though without that work's grand historical sweep. In fact, for the first two acts Donizetti seems to be rather perfunctory, going through the motions.

Many of Donizetti's late operas are puzzling. They can be short, almost compressed, with plots which stretch co-incidence, credulity and probability. Usually with some sort of love triangle, Donizetti seems to have been drawn to women unjustly accused by jealous husbands. La Favorite has many of these elements, though it does not have a vengeful, jealous baritone; despite one outburst, King Alphonse is relatively complaisant. The plot relies on the hero, Fernand, not realising that his beloved Leonor is the King's mistress. Donizetti is unconcerned with either details or background, but the situation finally brings from him some very powerful music in the closing scenes.

Valerie Negre's production, designed by New York artists Andrea Blum, was very stylish in a rather stripped down way. Costumes by Aurore Popineau were very loosely from the 1840's based on a very narrow palate of colours. Each scene was set via a single image -rocks for the Island of Leon, just a tree for the gardens of the Alcazar. The palace in act three looked rather like a modern hotel foyer and the monastery from acts one and four was virtually a plain stage. The result veered from the stylish to the embarassingly bare

Perhaps this would not have mattered if Valerie Negre's direction had been vivid, but the personeneregie seemed minimal with the cast very much left to their own devices, leaving the production feeling at times like little more than a concert.

In the title role, Alice Coote was superb. She sang Donizetti's vocal lines with admirable fullness and suppleness, with a great feeling for the shape of the line. Donizetti's mezzo-soprano parts can often suffer because they are seen refracted through the lense of Verdi's great dramatic mezzo-soprano parts. But not here, what Coote gave us was Donizetti, pure, simple and very expressive. She managed to bring off the conflicted character of Leonor, torn between duty to the king and to her lover. Her French was admirable, with finely clear diction.

Fernand was sung by the Belgian tenor Marc Laho. He has a voice which hovers on the edge of lyric, and plans include Don Carlos and Guillaume Tell. He sang Fernand with admirable firmess and flexibility, demonstrating a good clean line and a generally free top, though it did sound as though he was getting tired. He clearly understands singing Donizetti and does not hammer it out like early Verdi thank goodness. That said his delivery was apt to be rather monochrome. But his stage presence was stiff in the extreme, so I suspect that both his music and dramatic peformance would have benefitted from a stronger directorial hand. That said, Francophone tenors are relatively rare, especially ones able to sing this very particular style of semi-heroic part. In the early part of the opera he also seemed admirably willing to slip into head voice for the higher notes.

Where Laho's solidity told was in the final scene, which Donizetti wrote as a long duet for Fernand and Leonor where she attempts to get his forgiveness, he admits he still loves her but she denies him for the sake of his vows as a priest. The result was intensely powerful with Laho and Coote both impressing with the full, dramatic singing.

Ludovic Tezier as Alphonse was similarly admirable vocally, singing the high baritone part with flexibility. Alphonse gets to sing a very odd trio at the beginning of act 3, with Leonor and Fernand, where Alphonse gives Leonor to Fernand but Donizetti makes it clear that the relationship will be 'with benefits'. Despite a powerful solo in act two, Alphonse is rather an underwritten role. Tezier gave us some superb singing, but seemed dramatically uninvolved.

Balthazar (Carlo Columbara) is the Father Superior of the monastery at which Fernand is based. But Balthazar also acts as the King's conscience, bringing a bull from the Pope at the end of act two. With his dark toned voice, Columbara was ideal in this role of Deus ex machina, and the singer impressed with the way he combined gravitas with vocal flexibility and some lovely chocolatey tones

Loic Felix played Don Gaspar, one of the courtiers who has a small but decisive role to play in the intrigues in act 3. Felix was admirable in his role, bringing dramatic credibility to it.

Judith Gauther brought what support she could to the tiny role of Ines

The Choeur du Radio France, Choeur du Theatre des Champs-Elysee were in great voice. Unfortunately they had to suffer the indignties wrought by choreographer Sophie Tellier. Tellier seemed to think that it would be amusing to have the chorus jigging up and down in time to the music, whenever Donizetti wrote one of his bouncy choruses. Unfortunately, Donizetti wrote two or three in the opera, which meant that the visual presentation of the larger scale scenes sometimes veered alarmingly towards Gilbert and Sullivan.

Paolo Arrivabeni conducted with discretion and sympathy, giving the principals plenty of space and scope and allowing the music to breathe and flow, whilst keeping things moving. 

Going to the opera in France remains a very odd experience. The ushers were all very pointed in the way they let everyone know that the only money they made was from tips; so I found myself tipping a theatre usher for the first time since, oh, since I was last at the opera in Paris. And the theatre was not full, so that as the house lights went down there was the most almighty scramble in the audience as people made their way towards the better seats.

There were moments, notably in the first half, when I did wonder whether the opera was going to be worth the trip to Paris. But once Coote started on Oh, mon Fernand (perhaps better known in the Italian version, O, mio Fernando), you knew that something special was happening. Then for the long final scene, the performance was simply gripping as Coote and Laho, with a little help from Colombara, brought the opera to a stunning close.

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