DONIZETTI La Favorite
Like Les martyrs (see below), La favorite – which had its Paris premiere at the end of the same year (1840) – was a reworking of existing material (L’ange de Nisida) in collaboration with Scribe. If you can buy into a huge chunk of Catholic guilt, the story is a strong one, almost contemporary in its focus on a heroine who becomes a kind of ‘uncle target’ for three leading men – genuine lover, royal seducer and priestly denouncer. The thematic influence on Verdi’s Trovatore and Forza – chasing an impossible love across a landscape of war and religious prejudice – extends to the selection of scenes and their musical setting.
Vincent Boussard’s production is traditionally costumed (but, helpfully, symbolically coloured) by Christian Lacroix and plays on some bare mirrored scenery (sets by Vincent Lemaire), which focuses the action refreshingly on the principals rather than faked-up historical architecture. Non-realistic chorus action in public scenes could have been more penetratingly choreographed. The ground production, and singing, are strong enough to cover some stiff, facially inexpressive acting from Fernand and Balthazar – but Yijie Shi in particular sounds special, a real Jugend-lyrischer with good French. Kate Aldrich, last on our small screens as an attention-grabbing Adriano in a Berlin Rienzi (ArtHaus, 3/11), gives a very complete, committed and vocally able portrait of the victim Léonor, enthusiastically supported by Souquet as her maid/companion Inès (another precedent for this role in later Italian operas). Tézier makes for a suave, clearly acted Alphonse, the marker for Verdi’s di Luna.
Even just after Les martyrs, the development of Donizetti’s handling of French text and idiomatic emotion is impressive, emphasised by the score’s greater formal fluency and through-composedness. Late Rossini seems a more obvious model than in the earlier work. Allemandi never ignores the music’s grandeur but is able to keep things moving. The DVD is coherently filmed – although the director seems a little nervous of the mirrors – and recorded. It’s a great pity that Opus Arte’s booklet has no track breakdown to accompany the main note and synopsis. An important opera well worth getting to know.