Bergamo was hit early and hit hard by Covid-19, so it’s particularly striking to see that, during a second lockdown, the city’s Donizetti Opera has stood defiant, staging its festival in an empty house but streaming it online to audiences across the globe. The programme has been slimmed down – a new production of La Fille du régiment has been postponed until 2021 – and a number of artist changes were made, the most high profile being the withdrawal of Plácido Domingo from the title role in Belisario, given in a concert performance. 

Belisario in Teatro Donizetti
© Gianfranco Rota

Although staged by Donizetti Opera in 2012, Belisario can still be considered one of those neglected operas from Donizetti’s middle career, a tragedia lirica composed immediately after one of his greatest hits, Lucia di Lammermoor. Based on the life of the 6th-century Byzantine commander, Flavius Belisarius, it tells the story of his betrayal by his wife, Antonina, who accuses him of high treason. Belisario is blinded and exiled, proof of his innocence coming too late, mortally wounded during a final military victory. 

Donizetti hadn’t composed anything for Venice since Pietro il Grande in 1819. Belisario was given at La Fenice as the last opera in the 1835-6 carnival season. Setting a Salvadore Cammarano libretto that had already been rejected in Naples, the work demonstrates Donizetti’s ability to write for his singers’ strengths and mask their weaknesses – one of his cast had been struck down with illness, while another was suffering a waning career. While it cannot match Lucia for musical inspiration, there are wonderful things in the score, especially the long duet where the blinded Belisario is guided by his daughter Irene, which touches on Lear and Cordelia.

Riccardo Frizza
© Gianfranco Rota

The festival’s music director, Riccardo Frizza, dapper in his yellow Donizetti Opera facemask, led a vivid account of the score. Tempi were taut, the strings lithe, woodwind solos attractive. The pit in the newly renovated Teatro Donizetti was raised to stage level, with perspex screens behind the strings, separating them from the woodwinds and brass; beyond a further row of screens were the chorus, singing into their masks. The stalls, stripped of seating, were populated by the principals, singing from a row of socially distanced music stands facing the stage. 

Roberto Frontali, replacing Domingo in the title role, sang well, particularly in the father–daughter duet with Annalisa Stroppa’s Irene. Frontali’s baritone is flinty, but his dramatic instincts made for a vital portrayal, with plenty of bite in his recitatives and a moving scene where Belisario narrates a dream in which he foresaw his son causing the downfall of the empire. Stroppa was impressive throughout, her refined, cultured singing very much in the classic bel canto mould. 

Roberto Frontali
© Gianfranco Rota

Bright-toned tenor Celso Albelo sang a distinguished Alamiro, the faithful slave who turns out to be Belisario’s long-lost son, long since believed to have been murdered on his father’s orders. Apart from a few moments where he pushed his tone hard, Albelo was a model of elegance and grace. Carmela Remigio was marginally less successful as Belisario’s plotting wife, suitably dramatic, but Antonina ideally requires more vocal weight along the lines of Leyla Gencer, who sang the role in the late 1960s. Remigio was at her most impressive as the remorseful wife who confesses to her plotting. Simon Lim’s gritty bass, a touch strained at top, made for an implacable Emperor Giustiniano. 

There was no applause at the end, chorus, orchestra and soloists taking their bows in complete silence rather than applauding each other – deferential, perhaps, to the appalling death toll Bergamo suffered, but at odds with the jocular style of presentation in the pre-performance and interval features which included Frizza and Frontali chatting to a bust of Donizetti and the hosts sharing lively banter over their interval drinks.

This performance was reviewed from the live Donizetti Web TV video stream