The Donizetti Opera Festival opens this year with La Favorite, written by the maestro for the Paris Opéra, in the form of a grand opéra – a term which, contrary to ignorant belief, doesn’t indicate a “great, glamorous, elitist opera”, but rather a genre of opera of the 19th century, especially famous in France, characterised by large orchestras, big stage machinery, and a lavish ballet, which was usually performed in the second act (so that the lazy aristocrats arriving late at the show wouldn’t miss it). 

Annalisa Stroppa (Léonor)
© Gianfranco Rota

The plot is a 19th-century feuilletton set in 14th-century Spain: a pious novice (Fernand) falls in love with a noble lady and abandons the cloister for her; she doesn’t reveal her name, they meet in secret. He becomes a war hero, and asks the king for her hand, finding out only after the wedding that she is Léonor de Guzman, the King’s mistress. Horror and shame overwhelm him, and he returns to the monastery to take his vows. In the final scene a dying Léonor reaches him in the monastery to die in his arms.

The sets, by Carles Berga and Peter van Praet, call to mind the different locations rather than describing them: towers of bunk beds (where the ex-mistresses sleep) are covered with white or black veils to give some organisation to the space; a large black canopy bed, with a golden cross on top, looms over Léonor and Fernand’s wedding, while a large statue similar to the Virgen del Rocío is suspended from the ceiling in the scenes taking place in the monastery.

La Favorite
© Gianfranco Rota

Director Valentina Carrasco gives a reading of the story true to the original, with a focus on the old, forgotten mistresses of the King. Léonor is only the last one of a long list of women living in seclusion on an island, waiting for the King who owns their lives and their destiny. These old women are the protagonists of the ballet, in a choreographic action where they wake up, get dressed, put on make-up, wear a tutu and “dance” together, in a pointless existence. It's poignant and is an intelligent way to solve the ballet without having dancers en pointe. The ladies were not professional dancers, but rather women chosen from the population in Bergamo – what they would call “sciure” in these parts of Italy. The King’s ex-mistresses were present in many other scenes: protecting and supporting Léonor when she is publicly repudiated by Fernand, and embracing her as she dies in their arms. The result is effective and well-executed.

Annalisa Stroppa (Léonor) and ensemble
© Gianfranco Rota

The musical performance was in the capable hands of Riccardo Frizza, a bel canto specialist and musical director of the Donizetti Opera Festival. La Favorite has enjoyed long years of success in its Italian version as La favorita, without the ballet and with several cuts. Here Frizza presented an integral rendition of the whole score in French, which is not often heard in modern times. We got all the recitatives, all the repeats of the cabalettas – it was wonderful! The orchestra was impetuous and yet subtle, maintaining tension with an emotive reading of the score with mostly judicious tempi and great pathos. The Donizetti Opera Chorus, reinforced by the chorus of the Accademia Teatro alla Scala, was spectacular in all the (many) ensembles, singing with precision and with a stage presence often made of subtle movements, dodging the “park and bark” while avoiding exaggerations.

Javier Camarena (Fernand)
© Gianfranco Rota

The singing cast was one for great occasions. Javier Camarena sang Fernand with an elegance and a mastery of the bel canto style which I honestly had never heard from him at this level. His tenor was still brilliant and exciting, explosive in moments of rage, with laser-like high notes, but he managed to shape each phrase with delicacy and intent. Even a tiny frog in his throat at “Ange si pur” was turned in a sob, an expression of grief. What a performance!

Annalisa Stroppa made her role debut as Léonor. Her voice is not exactly the “soprano Falcon” which this role would require, but she passed with flying colours. The timbre is bronzed and mellow, with a definite sensual quality, perfect for this role. Her high notes were secure and strong, and her interpretation heartfelt, very moving.

Javier Camarena (Fernand), Florian Sempey (Alphonse XI) and Annalisa Stroppa (Léonor)
© Gianfranco Rota

King Alphonse was Florian Sempey, who didn’t start at his best, with a cavatina which was a bit too slow, and he slightly lost focus. He improved very quickly, his stentorian voice giving authority to the King. He was also very effective in the more lyrical parts; one almost believed Alphonse was truly in love with Léonor.

The enthusiastic cheers from the audience for all signed a successful opening to the 2022 Donizetti Opera Festival.