The Teatro Real had planned a high-profile concert to mark the 20th anniversary of the re-opening of the house, featuring the same title that back in 1850 opened the brand new theatre, with contralto Marietta Alboni on stage and queen Isabel II among the audience. However, current events in Catalonia left the royal box empty and the announced governmental delegation decimated. As the concert was not open for free sale, the upper balconies and amphitheatre looked half-empty, which contributed to a lacklustre gala with the general ambience of a dress rehearsal. Fortunately, a young and committed cast came to the rescue and gave a fair rendition of Donizetti’s masterpiece La Favorite in its 1840 French version, with the ballet and unspoilt by the usual cuts.

Javier Camarena and Jamie Barton © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Javier Camarena and Jamie Barton
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Jamie Barton stole the show with top-notch singing and vibrant acting. Her sumptuous mezzo is based on a solid centre, with fresh colours and a beautiful, quick vibrato, crowned with powerful high notes. She does not just live off these natural gifts but she strives for technical excellency, displaying very nuanced and contrasted phrasing, always coloured by a rich palette and by exciting chest notes. She excelled in all her duos, trusting her good form and a deep knowledge of the role. In the ecstatic “O mon Fernand” she showed how well she can control her voice with extraordinary piano singing and smooth legato.

Javier Camarena had a bittersweet role debut. Maybe the lack of rehearsal or a too demanding agenda (he had just arrived from Los Angeles where he sang six performances of The Pearl Fishers) took a toll on his voice, but there are reasons to think that the role may be still too heavy for his light-lyric tenor. He looked a bit uneasy for much of the evening, especially cautious in the cabaletta and ensembles and lacking heroism in the most dramatic parts. He portrayed a desolate Fernand, with a melancholy monotone that looked like a technical strategy rather than a conscious dramatic choice. However, all the traits that makes him one of the best current tenors in the world showed up with largesse: unbreakable sul fiato singing, great dynamic variety (sometimes at the expense of the elegance of the line), a warm timbre, and powerful and easy high notes. Unmercifully placed right at the beginning of Act I, his “Un ange, une femme inconnue” sounded a bit cold and the scales over the pasaggio have a bigger effect in heavier voices. In “Ange si pur”, he sang a moving second part in pianissimo, though he missed the sublime and ethereal touch of the piece.

Javier Camarena, Simone Piazzola and Jamie Barton © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Javier Camarena, Simone Piazzola and Jamie Barton
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

At 32, Simone Piazzola is a very promising singer with a beautiful baritone, but he was not at his best as King Alphonse XI, a bit strained in the most heroic parts and with blurry phrasing in his arias. Simón Orfila's lyric bass has grown richer and stronger and was a rotund-voiced Balthazar. Marina Monzó showed in her small part as Inés that she has a solid technique and can do greater things with her light-lyric soprano. Antonio Lozano, with great French diction, and Alejandro del Cerro were also good in their small parts.

<i>La Favorite</i> gala at the Teatro Real © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
La Favorite gala at the Teatro Real
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Encouraged by Daniel Oren, the chorus sounded too heavy at the beginning, but achieved an intimate and subtle Act 4. Oren conducted effectively and proved a good choice for putting together all the pieces of the score without much rehearsal. He showed good, albeit evident, control of volume and imposed a vivid tempo, contrasted with rare lyric moments, such as the final duo between Fernand and Léonor. The orchestra had fine soloist moments with the cello in Act 1, the flute, the French horns and, notably in the ballet, the trombone, while the string section as a whole did not give the solid basis necessary for the most dense parts of the score.

The recipe was good and the ingredients well chosen, but the final result did not quite live up to the high expectations, even if Marietta Alboni now has a worthy heiress.