Notes and Editorial Reviews
Belisario is, quite simply, one of Donizetti’s finest achievements. Dating from the high watermark of Donizetti’s maturity, with its premiere in 1836 (the year after the debut of Maria Stuarda in Milan and Lucia di Lammermoor in Naples), Belisario proved a triumph on stages throughout the 19th century. Yet, incredibly, it is little known today. The libretto, by Salvadore Cammarano (who collaborated with Donizetti on Lucia di Lammermoor), tells the moving and typically complicated story of the 6th century Byzantine general. Falsely accused by his wife, Antonina, of killing their son, he was blinded and exiled as his punishment. Only the recognition by his daughter, Irene, that her father’s former captive, Alamiro, was her long-lost brother
restores Belisario’s reputation; tragically, too late to save his life.
Opera Rara’s Artistic Director, and one of today’s most celebrated conductors, Sir Mark Elder, conducts this neglected masterpiece in a studio recording, directing the choral and orchestral forces of the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra and the stunning cast is headed by young Sicilian baritone Nicola Alaimo (Belisario). Rising Canadian star soprano, Joyce El-Khoury, makes her recording debut as Antonina, American tenor Russell Thomas is Alamiro, Welsh soprano Camilla Roberts is Irene and the role of Emperor Giustiniano is sung by the esteemed bass Alastair Miles.
Opera Rara’s studio recording comes with a lavishly illustrated booklet with detailed article and libretto translation by acclaimed scholar Jeremy Commons.
R E V I E W:
DONIZETTI Belisario • Mark Elder, cond; Joyce El-Khoury (Antonina); Camilla Roberts (Irene); Russell Thomas (Alamiro); Nicola Alaimo (Belisario); Alastair Miles (Giustiniano); Julia Sporsén (Eudora); Peter Hoare (Eutropio); Edward Price (Eusebio); Michael Bundy (Ottario); Darren Jeffery (Centurion); BBC Singers; BBC SO • OPERA RARA 49 (2 CDs: 124:53 Text and Translation)
Finally, we have a commercial recording of Donizetti’s Belisario, a work familiar to only the most avid devotees of the composer. Pirates have been in circulation for a long time, most featuring Queen Leyla Gencer. But now Opera Rara has come once again to the rescue, restoring this uneven work, but whose inspired moments show the composer at his best. Belisario comes fairly late in the composer’s career, just after Lucia di Lammermoor. Though quite popular in its early years, it dropped out of circulation as audiences ultimately found the lack of a love interest and an unsympathetic heroine too much to put up with. The libretto was the first written by Donizetti’s favorite collaborator, Salvadore Cammarano, but it was an early effort that he fished out of his closet, as the composer, as usual, was in a rush. Despite these handicaps, compounded by the problem of writing for a cast with which he was not familiar, Donizetti created sufficient moments that justify more than simply an occasional revival. Belisario returns home from battle, but his wife, Antonina, accuses him of murdering their son. She wants revenge. Alamiro is one of the Greek prisoners who have been brought back to Byzantium but who is grateful to Belisario for his excellent treatment. We may be expecting a love interest between him and Irene, Belisario’s daughter, but he turns out to be the long-lost son. Given this uncongenial material, Donizetti has worked wonders, with two arias for Antonina, one each for Alamiro and Irene (but none for Belisario), and several ensembles of great emotional range. Belisario is not really short-changed, as he has many arioso passages in which to make his presence felt. Caroline Unger, who created the role of Antonina, was a mezzo turned soprano, known for her dramatic portrayals. There are not many high notes, not much in the way of floridity, but the expressive opportunities are many. Irene is said to be written for a mezzo, but I would suggest a mezzo only in the sense that Dorabella (Cosi fan tutte) or Giovanna Seymour (Anna Bolena) were originally conceived.
Alastair Miles is the only one of the principals whose name recurs regularly in the international press; the four other principals all new to me. Joyce El-Khoury appears to be a dramatic soprano in the making, at home in the bel canto aspects of her role but not afraid of a dramatic emphasis that is never out of place. Camilla Roberts (according to my research online) is a British soprano whose repertoire includes many Mozartean heroines, offering the right vocal contrast to her mother. Russell Thomas’s incisive tenor needs a bit of mellowing, perhaps, but the basic material is excellent as are his instincts. I find Nicola Alaimo in the title role a bit light-weight, with not enough velvet in the tone, but he is nonetheless effective in the last two acts when he is blinded, with Irene as his Antigone-like guide. In fact, it is the last two acts that are the most accomplished: the father-daughter scenes offer a pre-reminiscence of Verdi, just as the duet for Alamiro and Belisario could be a model for Carlos and Rodrigue. Mark Elder has the measure of the music, while the BBC forces are their usual excellent selves. As usual, we are spoiled by Jeremy Commons’s introduction.
I also listened to one of the private recordings, with Gencer and Giuseppe Taddei, conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, which I recommend for its unsanitized aspects (both Gencer and Taddei are well over the top). Gavazzeni, as usual, is at work with the shears, a few bars here, a few cadential measures there, second verses (other than Antonina’s) among the missing. His “elastic” approach, as some call it, is not in fashion today, but we are brought back to another era. And whatever one thinks of the maestro, we must be grateful that he cared enough about such neglected scores that he brought them to life in his own fashion.
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Works on This Recording
Belisario by Gaetano Donizetti
Nicola Alaimo (Baritone),
Joyce El-Khoury (Soprano),
Russell Thomas (Tenor),
Camilla Roberts (Soprano),
Darren Jeffery (Baritone),
Peter Hoare (Tenor),
Edward Price (Baritone),
Alastair Miles (Bass),
Julia Sporsen (Soprano)
BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1836; Italy
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