This year, the Donizetti Opera Festival offers a true rarity: Chiara e Serafina, an opera never performed since its initial run in 1822. It was very exciting to be among the first people alive to have heard this music by Donizetti, even if the main joke in the theatre was “well, we understand why”. The culprit is not the master’s music, but rather the plot, which is as intricate and incoherent as they come: it seems to ramble along, leaving loose ends, useless expedients and general confusion. It tells the story of Don Alvaro, a Spaniard who was kidnapped by the Algerians together with his daughter Chiara, leaving the youngest, Serafina, in the care of evil Don Fernando, who wants to marry her for her money. Don Alvaro returns, must hide because of an unjust death sentence, so a pirate (Picaro) pretends to be Don Alvaro and Serafina believes him. There are a dozen characters running around and dressing up as somebody else, plus pirates; after a while you just give up and enjoy the music, until the happy ending.

Valentina Pluzhnikova (Lisetta)
© Gianfranco Rota

The opera was composed in ten days, and, from a musical point of view, it seems quite disorganised. In bel canto there is a rhythm between arias, recitatives and ensembles; here one ensemble comes after the other: duet, trio, concertato, another duet, another concertato. It’s exhausting. This is prevalent in the first act, while the second act flows a bit more naturally and easily. The style is still very reminiscent of Rossini, but there are clear signs of what the future will bring: we can hear his more mature works starting to take form.

Director Gianluca Falaschi approached this work as a typical revue (or perhaps vaudeville): we had  chorus girls dressed as sailorettes, and all the singers, except Don Alvaro and Chiara, the two serious characters, fitted with funny fake noses, protruding chins and absurd wigs. It is a successful idea; one can’t really take this plot seriously. Towards the end, the singers “get lost” in the plot, take their wigs off, start reading their parts, seeming not to know how to move the action forward.

Chorus in Chiara e Serafina
© Gianfranco Rota

The orchestra Gli Originali played on original instrument, with a tuning around 410 Hz. Sesto Quatrini conducted with enthusiasm and good fast tempi, highlighting the solo interventions. Unfortunately their sound was not the best, occasionally best described as squeaky in the strings and approximate in the brass. The singers were from the Accademia Teatro alla Scala, which provided also the realisation of sets, costumes and make-up.

Veteran Pietro Spagnoli was supposed to lead the young cast as Don Meschino, but was instead substituted by Giuseppe de Luca, from the Accademia, who gave a very good performance in this typical buffo role. Greta Doveri sang Chiara with a strong soprano rooted in the centre, and very good high notes. Her voice seemed a bit opaque at times, with less presence than she showed in Il matrimonio segreto, in the (considerably) larger La Scala theatre. Perhaps a less than perfect evening for her. Fan Zhou was a funny Serafina, with a bright, high soprano and dazzling, perfect coloratura. Donna Agnese, a town gossip, was Mara Gaudenzi, who confirmed the good impression at La Scala even in a small role. Her daughter Lisetta was Valentina Pluzhnikova, with a beautiful, deep, mellow mezzo bordering on contralto. Arguably the best voice of the evening, she acted the wannabe prima donna to perfection and her making fun of Don Meschino was ruthless.

Giuseppe De Luca (Don Meschino) and Greta Doveri (Chiara)
© Gianfranco Rota

Hyun-Seo Davide Park was Don Ramiro, the reluctant (in the director’s vision) fiancé of silly Serafina. His tenor was powerful and well set, he was dressed as a typical beau, à la Rodolfo Valentino, with pomade in his hair and thin moustaches, and he was funny in his trying to avoid Serafina while singing his love for her. The singer interpreting the pirate Picaro was another one we heard in Il matrimonio segreto: Sung-Hwan Damien Park, who left a better impression on this occasion: his baritone had more presence here, although his low notes still seemed a bit hollow (the low tuning did not help him). Alvaro and Don Fernando were both sung by Matias Moncada, whose powerful bass impressed even in these small roles. The cast was admirably completed by Andrea Tanzillo and Luca Romano in minor roles. Quatrini was admirable in his constant support to these young singers, giving them attacks and leading them.

Mara Gaudenzi (Agnese), Valentina Pluzhnikova (Lisetta) and Matías Moncada (Don Fernando)
© Gianfranco Rota

All in all, the Donizetti Opera Festival put together an intellectually honest, valuable cultural operation, in reviving this lost opera. It will probably not find a place in the upcoming seasons, due to the plot's shortcomings, but the music does have some gems of beauty (the female trio before the finale!), which certainly make this a worthwhile endeavour.