Friday, 20 July 2018

Having the chance to hear the premiere of a mature Donizetti opera does not come every day: L'ange de Nisida from Opera Rara & Royal Opera

Donizetti: L'Ange de Nisida - David Junghoon Kim, Joyce El-Khoury - Opera Rara & Royal Opera (c) ROH and Opera Rara. Photo by Russell Duncan
Donizetti: L'Ange de Nisida - David Junghoon Kim, Joyce El-Khoury - Opera Rara & Royal Opera
(c) ROH and Opera Rara. Photo by Russell Duncan
Donizetti L'ange de Nisida; Joyce El-Khoury, David Junghoon Kim, Vito Priante, Lauren Naouri, Sir Mark Elder, Opera Rara; Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on July 18 2018 Star rating: (★★★★) 5.0
The world premiere of a mature Donizetti opera!

Donizetti: L'Ange de Nisida - Laurent Naouri - Opera Rara & Royal Opera (c) ROH and Opera Rara. Photo by Russell Duncan
Laurent Naouri - (c) ROH and Opera Rara. Photo by Russell Duncan
Whilst Donizetti's success in Paris in the late 1830s and 1840s was sufficient to make critics like Berlioz comment, not every project came to fruition and two notable operas fell by the wayside, Le duc d'Albe for the Paris Opera was abandoned after two acts in favour of La favourite, whilst this latter opera used music from another project, L'ange de Nisida. This latter opera was written for a theatre which went bankrupt and the work was long thought irretrievable. But clever detective work has given us an edition by Candida Mantica which seems to be 96% complete.

Opera Rara in collaboration with the Royal Opera gave the premiere of Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida a the Royal Opera House on Wednesday 18 July 2018. Sir Mark Elder conducted the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, with Joyce El-Khoury as Sylvia (the angel of  the title), David Junghoon Kim was Leone, Laurent Naouri as Don Gaspar, Vito Priante as King Fernand and Evgeny Stavinsky as a Monk.

Donizetti wrote L'ange de Nisida (Nisida is the name of the island near Naples where the heroine resides) for the Theatre de la Renaissance which had just put on the French language Lucie de Lammermoor with some success. L'ange de Nisida reached rehearsals but the opera house went bankrupt and L'ange de Nisida was never produced. As an opera semi-seria with recitative, finding another home for it in Paris was impossible (too grand for the Opera Comique and not grand enough for the Paris Opera) so Donizetti recycled part of it for La favorite written for the Paris Opera, but much of the original score languished.

L'ange de Nisida and La favourite have plot elements in common, a humble hero (Leone) in love with a woman (Sylvia) whom he does not realise is the mistress of the King (Fernand). But L'ange de Nisida is quite a different opera, it is semi-seria for a start with the role of Don Gaspar (the King' chamberlain) central to the part, yet always comic, the heroine is here a coloratura soprano and the main engine of the plot is somewhat different to La favourite is in L'ange de Nisida  the Monk appears at court brandishing a Papal Bull against the King's illicit relationship with Sylvia.

So what is the opera like?

In four acts, it mixes tragedy, with a light touch, with comedy and gradually allows the mood to darken. It is a substantial piece in four acts of 40 minutes each with recitatives and no ballet. We can fascinatingly watch Donizetti exploring the freedom which French opera gave him. Whilst the form is highly structured, there was plenty of flexibility, particularly in the types of arias, and Donizetti seems to have enjoyed subverting standard forms. There is hardly conventional double aria (cavatina & cabaletta) in the whole piece; in fact we heard Sylvia's Act Three aria as one, but part of Donizetti's manuscript is missing here and his intentions are unclear so Opera Rara brought in a cabaletta from Maria di Rohan.

Also the opera has a remarkable number of ensembles, and I was particularly struck by the ensemble of confused emotions in the Act Two finale, but there were plenty of others too! At first the opera seems a little light, not withstanding Sylvia stating at the outset that Leone's love for her is hopeless, but once the Monk appears in Act Two, thundering Papal imprecations against the King and Sylvia, things get darker with a magnificent quartet.

The opera relies on that old stand-by, the dim tenor hero. It takes until the end of Act Three for Leone to realise his future wife is the King's mistress. The last act sees him in a monastery, about to take his vows , when he is reunited with the dying Sylvia and the piece ends remarkably with a prayer following Sylvia's death.

 I don't think it will ever become a repertoire piece; for a start the plot is too close to La favourite with much music in common, and semi-seria operas with their equivocal tone are not much in vogue. But it would be interesting to see a fully staged; there was definitely more than enough musical interest to get over the creaking plot.

Donizetti's operas of the 1830s mostly seem to rely on traduced heroines. In a way Sylvia is no different, she has been deceived by the King (she expected marriage) and is aware of her powerlessness. But she is a very self-aware creature and far more complex than many of the Italian heroines. She has great dignity and certainly does not languish.

Joyce El-Khoury realised this very finely, making us aware of Sylvia's inner feelings. Whilst she never defies the king, she makes it clear she understands and her denial of the relationship with Leone is very powerful. Joyce El-Khoury sang expressively, with great dignity and a fragility of line which belied the dazzle of her coloratura. That said, I did find some of the expressive phrasing started to verge on swoopy mannerism. But overall this was a touching portrait of a surprisingly complex heroine.

Wisely David Junghoon Kim did not try to provide Leone with emotional depth or complexity. Instead he gave us plenty of Italianate firm tone. with some lovely mezza-voce. If this had been Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor I would have been delighted, and David Junghoon Kim is definitely a name to watch in this repertoire. But part of me still missed the vain hope that his performance would achieve elements of the French vocal style needed.

Laurent Naouri brought a certain style, in spades, as the fussily self-important Don Gaspar. Despite this being a concert performance Naouri was simply very funny, full of little mannerisms (vocal and physical) yet giving us some finely sung moments, and some devastating patter.

Vito Priante made a fine king, elegant and civilised, but with a steely core when crossed, and certainly self-absorbed enough to ignore his mistress' pain at her situation. After the quartet of confusion in the Act Two finale, he still rounds things off with a paen to his love of Sylvia! The opera offers no resolution for the king, at the end of Act 3, Leone retrieves his honour and defies the king, and we never see the king again.

Evgeny Stavinsky had whatever was necessary as the monk, thundering wonderfully in Act Two, and providing prayerful support in Act Four.

The chorus had quite a substantial role, something else which Donizetti developed more in his French operas, and I was particularly struck by the Act Three scene where the courtiers finally disabuse Leone of Sylvia's status. This was done as a dialogue between Leone and the male chorus, a very striking effect. The Royal Opera Chorus were on great form and grasped their opportunities.

Mark Elder drew finely elegant playing from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Whilst Donizetti included some fascinatingly sophisticated musical elements, the piece also had plenty of oom-pah and rum-ti-tum accompaniments, yet though these raised a smile, Elder and the orchestra gave them a nice lightness.

Having the chance to hear the premiere of a mature Donizetti opera does not come every day. And whilst elements were familiar, much was not. We could hear Donizetti both looking back and forward, there were passages in the ensembles which made us aware of the young Verdi in the wings (his first opera premiered in 1839).

L'ange de Nisida was being given two concert performances (the second on 21 July 2018). Both performances are being recorded for issue as a future Opera Rara recording. I look forward to the recording immensely, but I am also hoping some enterprising compnay gives the premiere staging.

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