Operatic weddings tend to be eventful. Still, pity Count Rupert, hero of Balfe’s 1858 opera Satanella. Not only is his bride struck by lightning on the way to the altar, she’s subsequently revealed to be the titular she-demon in disguise – the actual future Countess having been abducted by pirates shortly before the ceremony. And we’re only in Act 2 of this four-act supernatural spectacular. It’s easy to laugh – and if this premiere recording does nothing else, it demonstrates just how brilliantly Gilbert & Sullivan skewered this sort of melodramatic mid-Victorian extravaganza. Despite the best efforts of his champions, Balfe has gone from being famous for one opera to being famous for one aria, but the qualities that once made The Bohemian Girl so popular are there by the bucketload in Satanella: colourful orchestration, sensational drama and yard after yard of lilting, ballad-like melodies.
The plot is a cheerfully clichéd cocktail of devilment and pious sentimentality. Summoned from Hell by Count Rupert to help restore his fortune, Satanella falls head-over-heels for her prey and, moved by his love for his sweetheart and foster-sister (yes, it’s that kind of libretto) Lelia, achieves redemption and ascends to Heaven to the sound of organ, harp and angelic choir. If there’s no ‘I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls’, Satanella herself is a little gem of a role for coloratura soprano. Her aria ‘There’s a power whose sway’ contains just enough Bellini to lodge in the ear: Balfe certainly gets plenty of mileage from it.
This recording was clearly a labour of love for the Cheshire-based Victorian Opera Northwest, and it has one unbeatable ace to play – the conducting of Richard Bonynge. Bonynge is unsurpassed in this repertoire; he keeps it zipping buoyantly along, effortlessly supporting his singers and clearly relishing every baleful horncall, rippling harp and languishing cello solo.
His cast, too, feels near-ideal. The young Chinese-born tenor Kang Wang is a Rupert of considerable dash, and Sally Silver sings the title-role – the only really developed female character – with sweetness and sparkle. Catherine Carby makes a warmly expressive Lelia and Trevor Bowes is suitably black-toned and sonorous as the demon-king Arimanes. The chorus is adequate, though at times you wish someone had reminded them, Barbirolli-like, that they’re not bank clerks on a Sunday outing but souls sizzling in hell. Wind and thunder effects whip up a suitably Gothic atmosphere.
The spoken dialogue is wisely omitted and there are a few cuts – the original production apparently lasted over four hours but this fits neatly on two CDs. It’s a shame that space couldn’t be found to print the sung text, creaky though it is (there’s a full libretto on Google Books), and the synopsis provided is sketchy and at times misleading (it has Rupert marrying his ‘half sister’ – Balfe’s librettists may have been relaxed about the occult but they drew the line at incest). Other than that, it’s hard to imagine Satanella being more lovingly and persuasively revived. Sup with a long spoon – but enjoy.