Operatic archaeology can be a frustrating task, but for the last 53 years Opera Rara has been among its most avid and successful practitioners. 2023 marks Donizetti's 225th anniversary, a composer on whom Opera Rara has lavished attention over the decades. In celebration OR’s repertoire consultant Roger Parker has climbed out of the trenches, trowel in one hand and the score to L’esule di Roma in the other. Rare Donizetti might seem to be an unlikely crowd pleaser, but Opera Rara has developed a substantial following and Cadogan Hall was heaving with bel canto enthusiasts.

Nicola Alaimo
© Russell Duncan

Premiering in 1828, the opera was an immediate success and arguably ignited Donizetti’s international reputation, growing his career in the lead up to his first big hit, Anna Bolena, a couple of years later. L’esule has a slightly bonkers plot typical of Italian opera of the time. Set during the reign of Tiberius – one presumes from the libretto when Sejanus was conducting his purges – the Roman senator Murena has participated in a conspiracy leading to the exile of Settimio and, as popular general Publio returns to Rome, he is distinctly uneasy. He and Publio are keen that Argelia, Murena’s daughter, weds Publio, but she remains in love with Settimio, who returns to Rome, exposes her father’s part in the conspiracy and is promptly condemned to death by the Senate. Murena’s sanity collapses under the weight of his guilt to the concern of Argelia. Everything is set up for a typically tragic ending, but then Donizetti veers into Doctor Dolittle: Settimio is thrown to meet his death by a lion, who conveniently remembers him from a previous encounter and helpfully loses his appetite. Tiberius pardons Murena and they all live happily ever after (at least until Caligula takes power a few years later).

Nicola Alaimo, Albina Shagimuratova and Carlo Rizzi
© Russell Duncan

So is L’esule worth hearing? On the strength of this performance, absolutely. Donizetti’s typical gift for melody is on display throughout, particularly his writing for the tenor role, Settimio, which is unmistakably Donizettian, while one sees in his construction of the baritone Murena the first of the mad scenes for which he would become so famous. The nuanced father/daughter dynamic between Murena and Argelia seems to presage Verdi, but in the joyous and flamboyant final aria given to Argelia, Donizetti is very much writing in the tradition of Rossini, the dominant composer of the day. The first act ends with an innovative trio for tenor, soprano and baritone, a break from the usual tutti convention which – astonishingly for the rather conservative contemporary audience – proved to be the opera’s big hit. Carlo Rizzi is an ideal conductor for this kind of work and he drew a searing performance from the beleaguered Britten Sinfonia which more than justified the orchestra’s existence, keeping the flow going and injecting a real sense of drama and narrative snap to the score.

Absolutely dominating the stage as Murena was baritone Nicola Alaimo, who delivered one of the finest concert performances I have seen. He has a strong muscular voice, rock solid at the bottom, but incisive and even at the top with impeccably pointed diction and an elegance of phrasing that gave his performance an almost tragic nobility. From his early moments, “Per lui”, he announced all of these qualities, but his mad scene, “Entra del Circo!” was a tour de force

Carlo Rizzi, the Britten Sinfonia and cast
© Russell Duncan

Sergey Romanovsky was a debonair Settimio, his lyrical tenor throbbing with a romantic urgency ideally suited to the writing. His prison scene was strongly sung, voice gleaming attractively at the top (Donizetti inserted it for the La Scala run and one must be glad he did so). Albina Shagimuratova’s attractive, cinnamon-flecked soprano was on good form, particularly for her triumphant finale “Ogni tormento, qual nebbia al vento”, but it was a great shame that for much of her performance her mouth was directed firmly at her music stand; there were times when her singing didn’t quite catch fire. Lluís Calvet I Pei gave us a genial Publio, his pale baritone easy on the ear, but perhaps a little unimposing for a triumphant general. Kezia Bienek and André Henriques were commendable in the minor roles of Leontina and Lucio/Fulvio. The Opera Rara chorus sang enthusiastically, but were hindered by their position at right-angles to the stage.

The opera opens with a triumphant return, which very much describes the resurrection of this unfairly forgotten work – not a masterpiece, for sure, but an opera packed with drama and terrific tunes. I’ll be on the lookout for a full staging, probably in Italy, hopefully in the not too distant future!