Friday 15 January 2021

Donizetti on the cusp: never a success in his lifetime, Opera Rara reveals much to enjoy in the composer's 1829 opera Il Paria

Donizetti Il Paria; Albina Shagimuratova, René Barbera, Misha Kiria, Marko Mimica, Britten Sinfonia, Sir Mark Elder; Opera Rara

Donizetti Il Paria; Albina Shagimuratova, René Barbera, Misha Kiria, Marko Mimica, Britten Sinfonia, Sir Mark Elder; Opera Rara

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 January 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Despite its weak dramaturgy, there is music of richness and daring in an opera written a year before Donizetti's first big success

12 January 1829 was a big day for Gaetano Donizetti. Aged 32, he was making his debut as Director of the Royal Theatres in Naples, a post previously held by Rossini (until 1822), with the premiere of Il Paria (something like his 29th opera). It wasn't Donizetti's first opera for Naples, but Il Paria would be the first one written as Director. Royal protocol ensured that the reaction to the first night was muted, but the opera only lasted for a few performances despite the starry cast (Adelaide Tosi, Giovanni Rubini and Luigi Lablache) and was never revived. Donizetti always intended to return to it, but never did, though he used the opera as a source for other operas in the 1830s.

Now we can hear for ourselves, as Opera Rara has released a new recording of Donizetti's Il Paria conducted by Sir Mark Elder, with Albina Shagimuratova, Misha Kiria, René Barbera, Marko Mimica, and the Britten Sinfonia. [The same forces performed the opera at the Barbican following the recording and you can read a review of the live performance at Classical Source.] The recording is the company's 26th Donizetti opera recording (and there are around 80 Donizetti operas in total).

The libretto for the opera was by Domenico Gilardoni, who wrote the librettos for many of Donizetti's Neapolitan operas (11 between 1827 and 1831!), but Donizetti's greatest operas of the period such as Anna Bolena and Lucrezia Borgia were with another librettist Felice Romani. The libretto for Il Paria is not poetic in the manner of Romani, but it is quite a sophisticated construction.

Donizetti: Il Paria - Albina Shagimuratova, Marko Mimica, Misha Kiria, René Barbera, Thomas Atkins, Kathryn Rudge, Britten Sinfonia, Opera Rara Chorus, Sir Mark Elder - Barbican 2019 (Photo Russell Duncan)
Donizetti: Il Paria - Thomas Atkins, Kathryn Rudge, Marko Mimica, Misha Kiria, René Barbera, Albina Shagimuratova, Sir Mark Elder
Britten Sinfonia, Opera Rara Chorus,  - Barbican 2019 (Photo Russell Duncan)

Unfortunately, to modern eyes and ears, the plot leaves something to be desired. The setting is exotic, taking place in and around a temple in Benares though the fashion for exoticism in music had not yet hit and Donizetti's music makes no attempt, thankfully, to set the scene with exotic-style music. The plot is something of a cross between Verdi's Aida and Delibes' Lakme. Neala (heroine) is a priestess of the sun in Benares where her father Akebare is the high priest. She is secretly in love with Idamore (hero), victorious leader of the army who is hated by Akebare. The plot involves Akebare betrothing Neala to Idamore, because Akebare realises Idamore will reject this as the two hate each other. A hated pariah appears at the temple and is eventually revealed to be Idamore's father. 

Whilst the setting itself reminds us of Lakme (1883), the plot is highly reminiscent of Aida (1871) with the child of a hated enemy being forced to choose between parent and loved one from the conquering nation/forbidden upper caste. Donizetti entirely avoids the Eastern setting, writing music which has no sense of the exotic, but he is clearly interested in atmosphere and scene-setting.

There are aspects of the opera which are quite conservative so that Neala's entrance aria is very Rossinian in the way her solo develops into a dramatic ensemble and Idamore makes his entrance with a large scale cavatina, tempo di mezzo, cabaletta, which is typical of the arias of Rossini. 

But there are other areas which are more advanced and less conventional. Donizetti makes Neala and Idamore's Act Two duet start in a way which is intriguing and non-obvious, though the cabaletta is more standard territory, whilst Zarete's long accompanied recitative-like passage before his aria is terrific with richly evocative nocturnal orchestration. Donizetti was taking advantage of the highly skilled (and well funded) orchestra at the theatre with long scene-setting orchestral interludes and many passages where the voices are accompanied by striking orchestration. His use of the chorus is also interesting, he brings it into the action in parts of the opera, yet at the end of Act One when a grand vocal, choral, orchestral ensemble would be expected to bring the act to a glorious close, he gives us a scene for Idamore and his father, a tense duet which is something of a pre-echo of Verdi's Nile scene. And at the conclusion to the opera, the same happens, the chorus is silent and Donizetti ends with a vivid quartet in which each of the principals explores their own thoughts.

Overall it is quite a compact opera, a first act just over 60 minutes and a second just over 50, and if you lay it out as arias, and duets, then Act One has solos for Neala and Idamore, plus a duet for Idamore and Zarete, whilst Act Two has a duet for Neala and Idamore, a solo for Zarete and the large scale finale. That doesn't really leave a lot of room for character development, and perhaps Donizetti's use of orchestral interludes was as much about filling out character and background as anything else.

Albina Shagimuratova makes an appealing Neala, lyrically persuasive as well as throwing out the roulades with the best of them. René Barbera brings a slim-line stylish tenor voice to Idamore and seems entirely comfortable with the role's high tessitura. Not only is he able to toss off all those top C sharps with apparent ease, but he can even bring shades of colour and volume to them, using voix mixte. The sound he makes will perhaps not be to everyone's taste, Pavarotti thrills it is not, but he is somewhat Alfredo Kraus-like in his style and probably closer to what Rubini sounded like. Misha Kiria makes a fine Zarete, on the wrong side thanks to his birth but musically sophisticated with a lovely line in his big Act Two scene, adding great complexity to the character, whilst he and Barbera make the duet conclusion to Act One work well. The opera's sympathy for Zarete is interesting, it makes the whole work something of a plea for religious tolerance which was relatively unusual at the time.

In the smaller roles, Mako Mimica thunders terrifically as Akebare, Neala's unbending father whilst Thomas Atkins and Kathryn Rudge provide strong support in the smaller roles of Empsaele and Zaide., and the Opera Rara is in strong form as ever.

The Britten Sinfonia respond well to Mark Elder's sympathetic direction, making the orchestral contribution to this disc one of the highlights, given the way Donizetti uses his orchestra in such a significant way, making the delights of the disc more musical than dramatic. This was the Britten Sinfonia's first appearance with Opera Rara and the ensemble will be returning when the company records Donizetti's Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo, which is planned for later this year with Albina Shagimuratova, René Barbera and Misha Kiria.

This is the work's first studio recording and the only other recording was a live one, issued on Bongiovanni in 2001. As usual with Opera Rara, the booklet includes plenty of illustrations, a good article by Roger Parker and full text and translations. The opera is performed in a new edition by Roger Parker and Ian Schofield which will be available to hire thanks to Opera Rare's recent agreement with Casa Ricordi.

The plot is perhaps rather too rooted in the particular time and place, the use of the pariah, to see this opera moving into the theatre easily. And thinking about the dramaturgy you feel that the piece could have done with an extra twist or two. But we should not consider the opera's paucity of original performances to be a sign of lack of quality; it was tailored very much to the three principals (few contemporary tenors apart from Rubini would have managed the high tenor part), and there are plenty of other first-class operas that never went on to success. At the recording launch on Thursday, Roger Parker likened the early 19th-century Italian opera industry to the modern film world, it fed on new works. And Donizetti's own high regard for the opera is suggested by the way he re-used so much of the musical material in later operas.

There is much to enjoy on this disc; it gives us a chance to hear Donizetti, on the cusp of fame (his break-out opera Anna Bolena came the year after Il Paria) and happy to experiment and challenge expectations. Donizetti here is at the height of his powers, almost compensating for any lack in the libretto with music of extraordinary richness and daring.

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) - Il Paria (1829) [111:22]
Akebare - Marko Mimica
Neala - Albina Shagimuratova
Zarete - Misha Kiria
Idamore - René Barbera
Empsaele - Thomas Atkins
Zaide - Kathryn Rudge
Opera Rara Chorus
Britten Sinfonia
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)
Recorded at BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, 1-6 June 2019
Opera Rara ORC60 2CD [60:24, 50:58]

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