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Donizetti: La Favorita / Fabio Luisi, Et Al

Release Date: 09/09/2008 
Label:  Nuova Era   Catalog #: 231691   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Gaetano Donizetti
Performer:  Alessandro VerducciMichele FarruggiaAlessandra RuffiniGiuseppe Morino,   ... 
Conductor:  Fabio Luisi
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Slovak State Philharmonic ChorusItalian International Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

DONZETTI La favorita Fabio Luisi, cond; Paolo Coni ( Alfonso ); Adelisa Tabiadon ( Leonora ); Giuseppe Morino ( Fernando ); Alessandro Veducci ( Baldassare ); Michele Farruggia ( Don Gasparo ); Alessandra Ruffini ( Ines ); Italian Intl O; Slovak St PCh Read more NUOVO ERA 231691 (2 CDs: 149:21) Live: Martina Franca 8/3,7/1989

It’s often said that Giordano’s Andrea Chenier is the greatest Puccini opera not written by Puccini, and I would go so far as to make a similar claim for La favorita. It’s the greatest Bellini opera not written by Bellini—far greater music, overall, for its plot and text than I Capuleti ed i Montechi, La sonnambula , or I Puritani. What makes this even more surprising is that what Donizetti wrote was a hotchpotch of snippets from other operas (even the famous tenor aria “Spirto gentil” was cribbed from Duc d’Albe ) mixed with original music in such a seamless fashion that the result is not only tuneful but elegant, dramatically appropriate, and scored more subtly and richly than any of his other serious operas. Alas, it also shares with Chenier the fact that it hasn’t normally fared well on records. In the long and distinguished history of recording, the only complete version I previously found satisfactory was the 1974 recording with Fiorenza Cossotto, Luciano Pavarotti, Gabriel Bacquier, and Nicolai Ghiaurov, conducted by Richard Bonynge (Decca 430038).

This live performance, originally issued on Nuovo Era in 1999, cannot compete with the Decca for golden voices—indeed, bass Alessandro Veducci suffers from a wobble, and the lead mezzo (Tabiadon) does not possess a voice I’d call splendid or even memorable—yet it scores several points over the older recording in terms of displaying true bel canto singing style, a style I’d come to believe was not only dead but beyond resuscitation. This style was built around three stylistic traits that require not merely knowledge but good instincts: rubato (meaning “to steal,” elongating a note or phrase here but shortening a note or phrase elsewhere to make up the time), tenuto (to hold), and rallentando (slowing down the tempo). In addition, singers were expected to master subtleties of dynamics, very gradually introducing crescendos and diminuendos on sustained notes or within complete phrases. Each of these elements introduced to this music a fluid motion that had very little to do with the straight-ahead directionality of German, British, or Russian music; but it was highly prized in its day by the Italians, French, and Austrians.

Like all such styles with instructions but no exact rules, bel canto degenerated into mere showoff displays for singers. By the early 20th century, it sank so low in the estimation of serious musicians that it was considered not merely a detriment to music but actually unmusical, which is why most today don’t hold the recordings of its most famous exponents (Fernando de Lucia, Mattia Battistini, Olimpia Boronat, Marcella Sembrich, Giuseppe Anselmi, and, in the Austrian sphere, Selma Kurz) in very high esteem. Conductors, such as Strauss, Herz, Kleiber, and, of course,Toscanini, helped kill it off. To do so, they tightened the scores, revealed the splendid underlying structure of the music, but left in its wake six generations of singers who haven’t a clue how really to perform the style. (Google “bel canto style” and you’ll get such names as Miguel Fleta, Elena Nicolai, Maria Caniglia, and Joan Sutherland, splendid singers in their own right with little touches of bel canto, but none of whom mastered its subtleties.)

These singers, somehow or other, do know, despite Coni’s lack of a trill (a detriment at times) and Tabiadon’s lack of tonal glamour. Indeed, Morino’s performance as Ferrando is exemplary in every respect. He not only has impeccable musical instincts and technical control of his voice, but he knows exactly how to phrase—when to hold back, when to press ahead, when to insert the optional high note, and when not to. His singing here is an object lesson in bel canto styling, far more natural sounding than the annoyingly artificial attempts at the style in recent years by Joseph Calleja.

Though Tabiadon does not possess a particularly memorable voice, it’s not bad. She, too, is highly musical, and if she does not efface memories of Cossotto’s burnished bronze timbre, she certainly surpasses her tenfold in her ability to project not only feeling but also a real character. As she sings it, Leonora sounds like a real woman, conflicted in her loyalty to the King and her deep, genuine love for Ferrando. In her hands, “O mio Fernando” does not merely showcase a lava flow of legato but damn near breaks your heart. I’ll take that any day. (A footnote: the last act duet between Tabiadon and Morino sounds almost exactly like one of those old Italian Fonotipia discs from the last age of bel canto. )

Comparing this to the Bonynge recording, one is amazed to hear that Pavarotti, who was practically anti- bel canto , attempted to shade the voice in the right style. He comes close, but Morino is his master. Otherwise, only Bacquier really had the style down pat, and Bacquier, great singing actor that he was, never possessed a particularly firm or completely steady tonal emission. Ghiaurov—well, what can one say? Not strictly bel canto , but who cares? This is the Baldassare voice of one’s dreams. Bonynge also includes the ballet music, left out by Luisi.

Of course, none of the singing style in this performance would amount to much if it were not sensitively supported by the excellent conducting of Fabio Luisi, leading here an appropriately reduced orchestra and chorus. As the late Dr. Louis Leslie once said to me of performances he’d heard at the Paris Opèra (the original home of Favorite ), even the mildest climaxes in such a small house have the impact of explosions at the Met.

Before closing, I should point out that our understanding of bel canto , which had its roots in the singing of the 18th-century castratos, is extraordinarily important not only to vocal style but also to instrumental style. String instruments, in particular, were expected to style music like singers. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and all of Chopin’s music are based to some extent on bel canto technique. This is an extremely important, if elusive, style, and I commend this recording to the study of string, wind, keyboard, and horn-players, just as I commended Cecilia Bartoli’s album Maria for similarly reviving this lost style.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

La Favorita by Gaetano Donizetti
Performer:  Alessandro Verducci (Bass), Michele Farruggia (Tenor), Alessandra Ruffini (Soprano),
Giuseppe Morino (Tenor), Paolo Coni (Baritone), Adelisa Tabiadon (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Fabio Luisi
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Slovak State Philharmonic Chorus,  Italian International Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1840; Italy 
Date of Recording: Live 8/1989 
Language: Italian 

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