WASHINGTON, March 7, 2016 – The Washington Concert Opera (WCO) wrapped up its all-too-brief regular season last Friday evening at GWU’s Lisner Auditorium with a riveting performance of Donizetti’s infrequently performed grand opera, “La Favorite.” Better yet, this concert opera edition was headlined by one of our favorite young mezzo-sopranos, Kate Lindsey, who sang the opera’s lead role.
At least part of the reason for this fine work’s rare appearances in the modern repertoire is its somewhat bizarre version and performance history. It’s a story that’s not the subject of this review. But a brief synopsis is helpful in understanding why DC listeners might not have heard this opera performed before.
In brief, Donizetti, like Verdi, was accustomed to irritating and problematic run-ins with the Italian censors of his time—run ins that could either scuttle a production entirely (with attendant economic disaster) or force absurd revisions to the lyrics and the score before the premiere.
It turned out he had far less difficulty with this in France. So he headed off to Paris, where, after a bit more theater of the absurd with French opera personnel, he cobbled together “La Favorite” at least in part by using music from material he’d either cut or had had censored from other Italian operas.
After shaping the new plot and re-crafting his new opera with a French language libretto and an obligatory and lengthy French ballet sequence, “La Favorite” finally debuted in 1840 at the Académie Royale de Music in Paris where he scored a great success. The opera remained a fixture in the Parisian repertoire for the better part of a century.
While Donizetti is perhaps most popular today for his comic operas, “La Favorite” is a tragedy in the historic vein, more or less. Its plot revolves around the real life King Alfonso XI of Castile (1311-1350) and his mistress, Leonora Guzman, a noblewoman. The pair carried on their open and notorious affair for years, despite Alfonso’s marriage to his Queen, Maria of Portugal. After the historical Alfonso died, Maria ultimately got her revenge on Leonora. But Donizetti’s libretto takes a different path.
Instead of being a willful partner in moral crime with the king, Donizetti’s Léonor (Kate Lindsey)—French for Leonora—is cast as a young, seduced and very much misused woman of higher moral character than her current relationship with the king would seem to indicate. Donizetti’s King Alphonse (Alfonso), powerfully sung by Javier Arrey, more closely approximates impulsive character the real-life Castilian king, which serves to further emphasize Léonor’s victimhood.
The historical Alfonso (Alphonse) was pressured by nobility—with a big assist from the Pope—to abandon his mistress. Reluctant to do so, Donizetti’s Alphonse finds a way out, contriving to marry her off to a naïve but heroic monk-turned-soldier named Fernand (tenor Randall Bills), who doesn’t know that Léonor is the king’s mistress. Fernand’s discovery of this terrible truth leads quickly to the opera’s inevitably tragic conclusion.
Ms. Lindsey portrayed Léonor in very much the way that her character is written—an innocent and pious young woman who was likely promised marriage to a mighty king but finds herself in an entirely different position. Powerless to change it, she accommodates it instead.
This interpretation worked quite well for this production, and, subtly colored by Ms. Lindsey’s honeyed and infinitely expressive voice, imbued her Léonor with a humanity and femininity capable of winning over even the most cynical individual in the house, particularly in her final, heartbreaking aria.
As Fernand, tenor Randall Bills was really quite a remarkable presence. He seemed almost to channel his almost improbable character, a pious monk who’s so attracted to Léonor (unaware that she belongs to Alphonse) that he leaves the monastery and joins the army where he becomes a hero.
WCO was fortunate in its casting of baritone Javier Arrey as the stormy King Alfonso. A graduate of Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program, he impressed here last autumn as Marcello in WNO’s “La Bohème,” and also sang Iago in Verdi’s “Otello” at the (now sadly-departed) Castleton Festival under the baton of the late Lorin Maazel.
In “La Favorite,” he readily grasped the vaguely Donald Trump-like character of Donizetti’s Alphonse, a King who could make haughty pronouncements in one moment and then embrace the opposite conclusions with equal conviction in another. His stout but flexible baritone voice radiated authority in this production, and his menacing figure remained before the audience’s consciousness even when he was not appearing on stage.
Wrapping up the major characters were veteran bass John Relyea as Balthazar, Fernand’s monastic abbot and soprano Joélle Harvey, who sang the role of Inès, Léonor’s lady-in-waiting and closest confidante. Mr. Relyea’s huge, booming bass radiated moral outrage and divine authority, while Ms. Harvey’s instrument delicately articulated her increasing concern for Léonor’s safety and welfare.
Not surprisingly, all the primary voices proved brilliant matches in this opera’s many dramatic ensembles.
Under the baton of WCO’s music director Antony Walker, the WCO orchestra gave a fine reading of this infrequently performed score, blending perfectly with the soloists and the company’s fine chorus which sang with great passion and feeling throughout.
We left Lisner Friday evening already eagerly awaiting this company’s 2016-2017 season, which will include performances of Massenet’s “Hérodiade” and Beethoven’s “Leonore,” the early version of what was to become his only opera, “Fidelio.”
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars)