The second collaboration between Opera Rara and the BBC Symphony Orchestra brought a starry cast to the Barbican Centre on Sunday evening for a revival of Donizetti’s tragic opera Belisario. Written in 1836, immediately after the triumph of Lucia di Lammermoor, it was an instant success following its première at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice and remained in the repertoire for several decades. However, it disappeared, along with the majority of the composer’s output, in the late 19th century, and wasn’t revived in modern times until 1969.

This tragedy begins with the triumphant general Belisario (Nicola Alaimo) returning to Byzantium to be greeted by his wife Antonina (Joyce El-Khoury) and daughter Irene (Camilla Roberts). However, on his return Antonina accuses him of the murder of his son, Alexis. She has been told by one of her slaves that Belisario instructed him to take Alexis outside the city and kill him, but he could not bring himself to do it, so he left the child to fend for himself. As revenge, Antonina hatches a plan with the head of the imperial guard, Eutropio (Peter Hoare) to frame Belisario for the crime.

Following a trial, Belisario is found guilty of the murder of his son and the malicious Eutropio has blinded him as punishment, before having him exiled. The distraught Irene swears to be his guide for the rest of his life and they set out into the wilderness. On their journey, they meet a former prisoner of Belisario, Alamiro (Russell Thomas) who has joined a barbarian army following his release from captivity. They discover that he is in reality Belisario’s long-lost son, Alexis, and he is reunited with his family. However, in the ensuing battle, Belisario is struck by an arrow and killed. When the news of Belisario and Alexis reaches Byzantium, Antonina is wracked with guilt and the city curses her for her actions.

Set in such a vast landscape, both emotionally and physically, this opera is a challenge to any production team, and so providing a concert version seems an almost impossible task. However, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers and the Opera Rara cast provided an evening of high emotion, tragic storytelling and wonderful music. Donizetti’s score leaves no breathing space for either the orchestra or the singers. From the crashing chords which open the overture, the music is filled with emotional intensity and every aria is a showstopper. The chorus was also in full force, providing the voices of the Byzantine armies and citizens.

Nicola Alaimo in the title role provided a masterful interpretation of a truly tragic character. The portrayal of his blindness in the second half was heartbreaking, even with the limitations that a concert setting necessarily imposes. However, for me, Joyce El-Khoury was the star of the evening. Not only is the vocal range of the role enormous, she exercised complete control over the coloratura and the dynamics; at times the pianissimo top notes were spine-tingling. Antonina is an equally tragic and evil character, and showcased El-Khoury’s acting skills. Her voice soared easily over the full orchestral sound, which occasionally overpowered the other characters.

The concert setting of opera is a tradition in itself and provides a series of limitations for the performers. With the lack of staging and costume, the portrayal of the characters and the plot rely heavily on the vocal colour and facial expressions of the singers, which I thought were exemplary from all. However, I did feel it was a shame that the singers were quite so reliant on the scores, as it hindered somewhat the full emotional impact of the music. At times, true characterisation was sacrificed for a glance at a copy or an adjustment of a music stand, which was a shame. However, Sir Mark Elder’s masterful interpretation of this little-known work was a joy to behold and well deserving of the enthusiastic reception from the packed Barbican Hall.