Sir Mark Makes a Convincing Case for Belisario

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Donizetti, Belisario (semi-staged): Soloists, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 28.10.2012.

Belisario: Nicola Alaimo (baritone)
Alamiro: Russell Thomas (tenor)
Irene: Camilla Roberts (soprano)
Antonina: Joyce El-Khoury (soprano)
Giostiniano: Alastair Miles (bass)
Eudora: Julia Sporsén (soprano)
Eusebio: Edward Price (baritone)
Ottario: Michael Bundy (baritone)
Centurion: Darren Jaffrey (bass-baritone)

Stage Director: Kenneth Richardson

The opportunity to see Donizetti’s “lyrical tragedy in three acts”, Belisario (1836), might hardly be thought to come along every day; yet it was just a year ago that my colleague Jim Pritchard reviewed a COG performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The fact that, in Donizetti’s output, it comes straight after Lucia di Lammermoor (1835)has surely had a negative impact on its overall performance history though. True, it does not scale the same dramatic-emotional heights as Lucia, but it evinces a uniformity of inspiration that is really quite remarkable even if the musical integration is not of the same level as the more popular piece. This collaboration of the BBC forces and the record label Opera Rara is a highly laudable collaboration, therefore. Belisario was revived in 1969 in Venice. Seen and Heard has also run a review of the 2010 Buenos Aires production (see review here).

Belisario tells the story of the titular Byzantine general and his wife Antonina’s betrayal of him. His honour is at stake for much of the opera, during which he is blinded and put into prison; he is finally cleared, but his tragic death as a result of battle wounds furnishes the closing moments of the opera. Each of the three acts has a title: “Triumph”, “Exile” and “Death”. The story has it all. Deception, great choruses (the BBC Singers on top form, especially the male voices), friendship duets (for Belisario and the freed prisoner who now reveres him, Alamiro) and of course a touching death scene. This is a tragedy after all (and Elder clearly saw it as such, conducting with a palpable intensity).

These forces had spent the preceding week recording the piece, so it was lovely to be there to reap the rewards, evident right form the unanimity of the violins for the long lines of the overture’s slow section (a massive contrast to the bright day of the overture’s main body). One vital facet came through that prevailed throughout the evening – Elder has put his finger on how best to present Donizetti’s sonorities. In lesser hands they can often seem too thin, but here they seemed entirely right, and as the overture made its way towards its stormy climax, Elder’s strategies seemed to enable the music’s trajectory to appear entirely natural.

Camilla Roberts took the role of Irene, daughter if Belisario and Antonina. Roberts delivers a lovely sound, but was too easily overpowered by the orchestral forces, at least initially. It was only later in the first act that it seemed she had properly warmed into to the performance.

No such warming in for the evening’s Antonina, Belisario’s wife here played by the outstanding American soprano Joyce El-Khoury (recently she has sung Frasquita Carmen at the Met and Violetta with WNO). She is of striking looks and an equally stunning voice of seemingly endless dynamic range. No problems of the orchestra swamping this character. More then this, she carried the ongoing story grippingly (including a great, grief-laden cry of “Immenso”).

The performance was semi-staged by stage director Kenneth Richardson. The justly well-loved and respected bass Alastair Miles made his entrance through the aisles and through the audience to the stage. His voice is as tremendous as always (his Silva Ernani back in 2004 was simply remarkable). His assumption of Giustiniano throughout was shot through with nobility, his ample bass as focused as ever, his phrasing always impeccably musical. Richardson’s staging’s strengths lay inits non-interventionist stance. We followed the action through the intelligent movements of the characters within a restricted space, with lighting used subtly to underline atmospheres.

Whatever the strengths of his fellow singers, it was Palermo-born Nicola Alaimo that truly dominated the evening as Belisano himself. His CV is remarkable: he has appeared in Boccanegra (Met), Forza (Paris) and Rome (in Attila under Muti). Every syllable he sang indicated not only had he fully assimilated the role, he had lavished huge care into the consideration of every phrase. His tone was often radiantly imperious, sometimes railingly defiant, sometimes tender. The breath control he demonstrates is exemplary, taking long phrases in one huge arc. His voice worked well, also, with the tenor of Russell Thomas’ Alamiro, particularly in the second act duet. Thomas won the 2010 Francisco Viñas Contest in Barcelona. If his list of engagements is dwarfed by Alaimo’s his voice certainly wasn’t. Here is a singer with a great sense of character, good stage presence and a fine, ringing tenor voice.

Perhaps I was less taken with Peter Hoare’s Eutropio, vocally entirely passable but dramatically never quite convincing, his physical gestures learned rather than felt. Swedish born and UK-trained (Royal Academy) Julia Sporsén, as Eudora, was vocally fine but dramatically a tad faceless, at least in comparison with the excellence of the major roles.

Nevertheless, the total was by far greater than the sum of its parts (and bear in mind that some of those parts themselves were rather special). The triumph is that Elder made such a compelling case as to make a convert of this reviewer, certainly – and if the cheers at the end were anything to go by, I am not alone.

Colin Clarke