DONIZETTI Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal
Noting that Donizetti himself hoped that the opera would prove to be his masterpiece, Charles Osborne (The Bel Canto Operas, Methuen: 1994) concluded: “Dom Sébastien still awaits a decent modern revival.” Since then there have been performances in Germany, Italy and the US, how “decent” I can’t say, and in this country a concert performance at Covent Garden, with the present fine recording as its enduring gift to listeners. This has certainly done much to make amends for past neglect.
As is usual in this series, Jeremy Commons writes a well informed and judicious introductory essay, and he seems convinced. It is, he says, “unquestionably the most ambitious work [Donizetti] ever wrote, and, in its finest moments, just as unquestionably the greatest”. He of course speaks with the authority of an intimate and (relatively) long acquaintance few critics could claim; the critic nevertheless has a duty to give his own assessment, even if as no more than an interim report. On balance it seems to me rather frustratingly the work of a composer who has achieved a mastery of his art which, under great pressure of time, he applies, using all that he has consciously learnt without having to hand the quality of melodic inspiration and emotional warmth which was the true fount of his genius. And there is a questionable premise somewhere behind Commons’s formulation: “just as unquestionably the greatest”. But what if the item referred to in that “just as” is itself not “unquestionable”? It was, he says, Donizetti’s most ambitious opera. But the nature of that ambition is indicated by the remark of Donizetti which he has just quoted: “If you could see what a frightening spectacle it presents: Portuguese, Arabs, Procession of Inquisitors, Royal Procession with funeral bier, the subterranean chambers of the Inquisition”. In other words, grand entertainment for the Paris Opéra: big, expensive, sensational. I think I prefer the ambition which produced Lucia di Lammermoor and Don Pasquale.
The performance raises fewer questions, though enough is said about textual revisions for the Vienna premiere to make one wonder whether the Paris original is indeed always the best version. More immediately, some doubts arise about the casting. It seems strange that the major role of Camoëns (who on his return to Lisbon has one of the two best-known arias) should be given to a baritone whose voice-production is so unsteady when at hand is Simon Keenlyside, whose own role, well as he sings it, hardly makes best use of a singer of his quality. Something similar is true of Alastair Miles, whose sympathetic basso cantante is not a natural choice for the vindictive Grand Inquisitor. The two principals, however, are truly excellent: Kasarova so rich in voice and vivid in expression, Filianoti a tenor with brilliantly focused tone impressively supporting his place at the centre of the opera. Orchestra and chorus are at all times responsive, and Mark Elder conducts with energy and imagination. Let me suggest three passages in which opera and recording might be sampled at their best: Zayda’s duets with Sébastien (Act 2) and with Abayaldos (Act 3), and the grand ensemble of Act 4.