Notes and Editorial Reviews
Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal
Mark Elder, cond; Vesselina Kasarova (
); Giuseppe Filianoti (
); Carmelo Corrado Caruso (
); Simon Keenlyside (
); Alastair Miles (
); Robert Gleadow (
class="ARIAL12">); John Upperton (
Dom Antonio/First Inquisitor
); Lee Hickenbottom (
); Andrew Slater (
); Martyn Hill (
); Nigel Cliffe (
); John Bernays (
); Covent Garden Royal Op House O & Ch
OPERA RARA 33 (3 CDs: 176:30
is one of those operas that carry their reputation as masterpieces but with little documentary proof in the way of performances or recordings. And this first recording of the complete opera in the original French and making use of Mary Ann Smart’s critical edition means that we can now hear the work as Donizetti intended.
was the composer’s final work, written for the Paris Opéra, with all the trappings as codified by Meyerbeer and Halévy but filtered through an Italian sensibility, as Verdi would later do with
Les vêpres siciliennes
and even more memorably in
. The composer revised the work for the Viennese premiere, and it is that version that served as the basis for the Italian. Donizetti also suffered through the prima donna’s whims (her refusal to stay onstage doing nothing during the offstage Barcarolle), the librettist’s decision to move part of the third act concertato to the fourth act, plus the usual problems with the civil servants in the orchestra who did not want anything to do with the instruments created by Adolphe Sax.
is probably the most somber work Donizetti ever penned, from the funeral march that makes its first appearance in the short prelude (which Mahler must have known, perhaps through Liszt’s pianistic adaptation or even performances in Vienna, with its pre-echo of the
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
) to the moments where the Inquisition is present, to the rapid dénouement that may very well outpace even Verdi at his most concise. There is but one female role, perhaps a privilege demanded by Rosine Stolz, who was also the mistress of the director of the Paris Opéra, covering the same tessitura as her other Donizetti creation, Léonor in
. Sébastien was sung by Gilbert-Louis Duprez, the inventor of the high C sung in full voice and also a veteran from
, but no longer performing with his earlier facility, so that he has but a single aria—but an aria unconventionally placed at the end of act II and fiendishly difficult, to boot. The character with the most solo opportunities is the poet, Camoëns, perhaps Donizetti’s most grateful baritone role, with a dramatic prophecy, a lyric ode to Lisbon, and a barcarolle. Abayaldos is a killer baritone role, relentlessly emphatic at the top of the staff, while Dom Juam, like so many of his bass predecessors in other operas of the period, has few solo opportunities but must nonetheless be imposing vocally and scenically.
The plot is relatively simple: in act I, Zayda, an African princess, is rescued from the Inquisition by Sébastien, King of Portugal; in act II, Zayda saves Sébastien from death at the hands of the Moors; in act III, Camoëns and Sébastien have returned separately to Lisbon and are present at a funeral cortège for the King; Act IV gives us the judgment of the Inquisition over the lovers; and act V has a love duet, a barcarolle for Camoëns, a trio perhaps too reminiscent of
, and the peremptory conclusion. Within this framework, Donizetti rises to exalted heights, with only a few moments that could perhaps have been reconsidered (the aforementioned trio, the conclusion to the duet between Sébastien and Camoëns).
Mark Elder is the master architect who holds together the various strands with no flagging of tension. The Covent Garden forces are in excellent form, the orchestra particularly enjoying the music and the many opportunities given to the first-chair players. Giuseppe Filianoti in the title role may not yet have the requisite power and subtlety to give us a rounded portrait of Sébastien, but he is not far off the mark. Vesselina Kasarova’s exotic timbre is here put to the service of the music, with the occasional bulging of the vocal line that is her trademark. Simon Keenlyside as the Moorish monarch was, if I remember correctly, suffering from a cold but nonetheless handles the high-lying tessitura with no difficulty, but I think I would prefer to have heard him as Camoëns, where his almost perfect French and impeccable phrasing might have been heard to greater advantage. Carmelo Corrado Caruso’s poet is gruff on occasion where required by the drama and his ode to Lisbon touches us deeply. Alastair Miles has the needed authority for the Head of the Inquisition, solidly underpinning the ensembles. Once again we are spoiled by the accompanying booklet in which Jeremy Commons gives us all the information we need to appreciate the work at hand. I do have one question, however: why does the ballet music (not played in its entirety at the concert but recorded separately) not include the slow section of the
pas de deux
with its trumpet cadenza familiar to ballet fans who fondly remember the loony meanderings of Delia Peters in Balanchine’s
FANFARE: Joel Kasow
This, Donizetti's last completed opera, is a rather gloomy affair despite its pomp. Premiered at the Paris Opera in 1843, it is the most gigantic he ever composed, with scenes set on a Moroccan desert oasis, a battlefield, the royal palace and a public square in Lisbon (the latter with a funeral procession in which more than 600 people took part at the premiere), an underground court and torture chamber of the Inquisition, and a tower from which hero and heroine attempt to escape via a rope ladder, not unlike a 1930s Hollywood swashbuckler. Still, it was referred to as "a funeral procession in five acts" by one critic of the period, and some argue that it was the onset of the composer's syphilis that drove him to dementia and death within three years that played a part in both the work's occasional lapses of inspiration and dark hue.
It concerns the young King of Portugal who almost dies in battle in Morocco. Sebastien loves Zaida, an Arab princess; trouble ensues and he winds up falling victim to conspiracies between fundamentalist Christian and Muslim leaders, with Spain's King Philip II eventually taking over. This is not the Donizetti of flowery showpieces; rather it is at once somewhat imitative of Meyerbeer and forward-looking to Verdi.
In the midst of the politics and passion, librettist and composer decided to place Portugal's national poet, a real figure named Camoens, who not only adds sentiment but almost saves the King as well. Donizetti gave him the aria "O Lisbonne", long a favorite with baritones and the second-best-known set-piece in the opera, after the beautiful "Seul, sur le terre", with which the tenor-king ends the second act in a daring coup de theatre. (It is better known as "Deserto in terra" and always has been a favorite with tenors who can handle the three high-Cs and single D-flat with élan; Pavarotti included it on his first recorded album.)
There is no denying that the ballet music is uninteresting and too long and that for periods the work is somber to a point of being dour; that Zaida's music has little of the appeal of most of Donizetti's other heroines (including the similarly mezzo Leonore in La favorite); that the music for Abayaldos and the Arabs tends toward the undistinguished and rote; and that the final scene of the opera, less than two minutes long, is one of opera's great anti-climaxes--Donizetti himself was so bothered by its brevity that he wrote to a friend that "music can do nothing" for it. On the other hand, there are the two arias mentioned above, some terrific duets, a superb septet in the fourth act, and a fine ensemble or two. So the opera is a mixed bag, and a three-hour mixed bag at that.
This performance is very fine indeed. Tenor Giuseppe Filanoti is a real find as Sebastien--a lyric voice with real ping, an easy top, and passionate delivery without ever resorting to forcing or mannerisms. Matching him is Simon Keenlyside as the Muslim chieftain Abayaldos, singing with power and great expression; indeed, as good as baritone Carmelo Corrado Caruso is as Camoens, it would have been good to hear Keenlyside sing "O Lisbonne". Mezzo Vesselina Kasarova's remarkably smoky voice, in excellent form, pleases as Zaida, although she has developed the odd characteristic of varying pianissimo with forte tones so suddenly that it draws attention to itself and does not serve the music or text. Alastair Miles sings the role of Don Juan, the Christian Inquisitor, with emotional power but oddly unfocused tone. The chorus, with plenty to do, is marvelous.
Mark Elder leads as exciting a performance as possible, playing up the gravity of the dark moments (the prelude to the fourth act features massed brass choirs) and lending great forward movement to the more propulsive sections. His tempos for both "O Lisbonne" and "Seul sur le terre" might have been more yielding, allowing the beautiful, Italianate melodies to unfold (this is Donizetti at his most Bellinian), but he leads without overt sentiment. This recording is highly recommended.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal by Gaetano Donizetti
Alastair Miles (Bass),
Simon Keenlyside (Baritone),
Nigel Cliffe (Bass),
Vesselina Kasarova (Mezzo Soprano),
Robert Gleadow (Bass Baritone),
Carmelo Caruso (Baritone),
Andrew Slater (Bass),
Lee Hickenbottom (Tenor),
Martyn Hill (Tenor),
Giuseppe Filianoti (Tenor),
John Upperton (Tenor),
John Bernays (Bass)
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra,
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus
Written: 1843; France
Length: 176 Minutes 30 Secs.
Notes: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London (09/10/2005 - 09/13/2005); Cadogan Hall, Chelsea, London, England (09/11/2005)
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