In this calamitous year, many opera festivals have had to be abandoned, but Bergamo, the Italian city most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, refused to give up and its Donizetti Opera, reduced in scale, took place without an audience. Instead of music devotees, cameras and microphones of Donizetti Web TV filled the newly restored Teatro Donizetti.

Michele Pertusi (Marino Faliero)
© Gianfranco Rota

The festival opened with Marino Faliero, an historical libretto by Giovanni Emanuele Bidera based on Casimir Delavigne's play which was, in turn, based on Lord Byron's 1821 tragedy, Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice. The opera represents Donizetti's French debut, composed in the summer of 1834 for the Théâtre des Italiens, then directed by Rossini, where it was presented on 12th March 1835, just a few months after the triumph of I puritani by his rival, Bellini.

Marino Faliero is set in 14th-century Venice, a city of intrigue, criminal activity and mysterious masks, according to romantic writers. Doge Faliero is in conflict with the city's grandees. Learning about a conspiracy against them, Faliero does not hesitate to lead it, but he is discovered, deposed and executed for treason. Alongside the political and public themes, there is a private issue, in this case Elena, the Doge's wife, who is having an affair with Faliero's nephew, Fernando.

Michele Pertusi, Bogdan Baciu, Christian Federici and Francesca Dotto
© Gianfranco Rota

The music reveals Rossini's great influence. The composer himself asked Donizetti for some changes before its Parisian debut, in order to better suit the tastes of the audience. The opera, however, was equally disconcerting for defying tradition, such as the tenor's early death in Act 2 and the lack of a cavatina for the prima donna who only earns a great scene to herself in the opera's finale.

Some have compared this work to Verdi's I due Foscari not only because of the same Venetian setting and that it too derives from a Byronic source, but also because both works focus on two old men battling between private and public issues. Like Verdi's opera, Marino Faliero is also a nocturnal opera, its atmosphere and dark colour well underlined by the festival's musical director Riccardo Frizza.

Francesca Dotto (Elena)
© Gianfranco Rota

The vocal roles of Faliero are extremely demanding, having been composed for some of the greatest singers of the time: the bass Luigi Lablache (the Doge), the soprano Giulia Grisi (Elena), the tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini (Fernando) and the baritone Antonio Tamburini (Israel)... the same soloists as I puritani. Here in Bergamo there were no less excellent performers. Michele Pertusi sang a Faliero of enormous authority and mastery of style. The character of the Doge seems tailor-made for his personality and sensitivity. The role of the generous plebeian Israel Bertucci had, in Bogdan Baciu, an interpreter who was never over the top but very effective in his maestoso "Ero anch'io" in Act 1. 

The challenging tenor role of Fernando is probably the reason why this opera is seldom staged. For health reasons, the scheduled Javier Camarena was replaced by Michele Angelini, who sadly also proved to be ailing. Nevertheless, he generously saved the performance, although with clear signs of fatigue – too bad, because one would have enjoyed his shining timbre, accurate phrasing and beautiful singing line of his Almaviva in Laurent Pelly's Barbiere in Paris or as Percy in Anna Bolena at the Lithuanian National Opera last month, his debut in Donizetti. On the other hand, it was a very positive evening for Francesca Dotto, an Elena of great temperament who, in her scene in Act 3, demonstrated all Donizetti denies her in the two previous acts, namely remarkable vocal power and the dramatic accents of her tormented character.

The set of Marino Faliero
© Gianfranco Rota

Unsurprisingly, many Venetian references are evoked by Stefano Ricci and Gianni Forte's staging, given they are artistic directors of the Biennale Teatro di Venezia. Both Eugène Delacroix (The Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero, 1825) and Francesco Hayez (The Final Moments of Doge Marin Faliero on the “del Piombo” Staircase, 1867) depict Faliero's last moments on the steps in the courtyard of the Ducal Palace, an anachronism because the grand staircase was only built a hundred years later. However, stairs are profusely present in the creative staging by the ricci/forte performing art ensemble, a metal structure designed by Marco Rossi that dominates the stalls. In Alessandro Carletti's lighting design, the greenish light of the murky lagoon floods a three-dimensional, almost Escherian stairwell, a labyrinth that recalls the Venetian maze of streets and bridges, or the poles on which its buildings are built, but also the walkways that are laid for the acqua alta, as well as a gallows or a raft at the mercy of the waves, or even as cages that imprison the socially distanced characters into isolation. Gianluca Sbicca's costumes mix different styles: modern cuts, unusual colours and precious fabrics that seem to have come from Venetian silk and brocade workshops. 

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