University College Opera has a history of putting on rare works and celebrates its 65th anniversary with a production of Donizetti’s French Grand Opera, La favorite. Favorite is one of those legendary operas of the bel canto heyday: swiftly cobbled together from sketches and semi-complete operas, it still manages to be saturated with beautiful arias and duets, and rousing ensemble pieces. The work is better known in its Italian form, La favorita, which given the butchery imposed upon it by the censors, is a terrible shame.

David Woodward (Fernand) and Catherine Backhouse (Léonor) © John Reading Photography
David Woodward (Fernand) and Catherine Backhouse (Léonor)
© John Reading Photography

Essentially a classic love triangle from the 14th century, the work specifically targets the tensions between royal power and religion. Fernand, a red-blooded novice has fallen in love with a mystery lady and to the disgust of Balthazar, his monastic superior, resolves to depart the monastery in search for her. Having promptly exchanged romantic declarations with said mystery lady, he is told that romance is impossible, but is given a commission by her to serve in the army of Alphonse XI, King of Castile. She is revealed to be Léonor, the king’s mistress and in a heated duet with him, she rails against her position in the shadows of the court, before the odious Don Gaspar reveals a letter proving a love affair and Balthazar arrives with the full force of the Papacy to send Alphonse back to his wife and blaming Léonor for the infidelity. Fernand excels in the army and is granted permission to wed whomever he wishes, and he reveals his love for Léonor. Having discovered her previous role as regal mistress, Fernand rejects both her and the friendship of the king, stalks back to the monastery and eventually is reconciled to her just before she dies of exhaustion.

John Ramster moved the setting to 1930s in an updating that was entirely inoffensive, but offered no great revelations to the piece. Clever use was made of the limited space and the clash between religious and royal power was made explicit by the centralisation of a throne and a cross at varying points.

Kevin Greenlaw (Alphonse), Catherine Backhouse (Léonor) and David Woodward (Fernand) © John Reading Photography
Kevin Greenlaw (Alphonse), Catherine Backhouse (Léonor) and David Woodward (Fernand)
© John Reading Photography

Leading the pack was mezzo Catherine Backhouse as the ‘favourite’, Léonor. Her voice was dominating from the outset, with a pleasing huskiness that was deployed to great effect in both outrage and sorrow. Her showpiece aria, “O mon Fernand” displayed a steely core and moving plangent tones. Her acting was entirely compelling, and her phrasing was delicate and considered throughout the performance.  Alphonse, sung by baritone Kevin Greenlaw gave a sturdy performance. His voice lacked real fire, but showed an easy flexibility and an unforced power at its top end. His act II duet with Backhouse was memorable for the flashes of passion colouring his voice, as was his aria "Léonor! Viens, j'abandonne." With a regal stage presence, he made Alphonse’s struggle with love and the church, and his subsequent permission for his mistress to marry entirely believable. An attention to the Gallic lilt of the libretto was clear in both.

As Fernand, David Woodward did not have the vocal force that the role requires and in the first half seemed to have an audible issue with breath control. He was largely aware of his limitations, and his avoidance of vocal acrobatics ensured that he kept out of situations where bravery might have caused more embarrassment than caution, noticeably playing it safe with “Ange si pur”, the opera’s most famous aria, where he avoided high notes altogether. He sang, though, with a sweet lyric tenor, and was earnest both vocally and dramatically, though his tendency to raise his hands pointlessly should be culled.

Tristan Hambleton (Balthazar) © John Reading Photography
Tristan Hambleton (Balthazar)
© John Reading Photography

Tristan Hambleton was impressive in the role of Balthazar, showing a ringing bass that had real gravitas, and one could not help but be reminded, in his impressive showdown at the end of Act II with Alphonse, of “Don Carlos”. Ella Joy in the smaller soprano role of Inès, confidant to Léonor, struggled initially to rise above the chorus, but navigated the high notes without too much difficulty and gave a charming performance. Sam Peterson as Don Gaspar had a slightly nasal tenor which suited the villainous role well and was distinct enough to make an impression in ensembles.

The chorus gave a lively, albeit occasionally rough performance; a little more coaching in the language was warranted, but they impressed in their harmony and sheer enthusiasm. The UCLU Symphony Orchestra grappled with the complexities, and sheer length of the work well, though the woodwind and brass struggled intermittently. They were ably conducted by Charles Peebles, whose choice of tempi was invariably spot on and ensured that his singers were not overwhelmed.

The performance was dedicated to the sadly deceased Peter Maxwell Davies. Known for his attention to young musicians, he would no doubt have been delighted by the bumptious energy on display.