United Kingdom Donizetti, La Favorite: Soloists, Orchestre National de France, Choeur de Radio France, Choeur du Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paolo Arrivabeni (conductor), Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris,12.2.2013 (SRT)Cast:
Léonor de Gusman – Alice Coote
Fernand – Marc Laho
Alphonse XI of Castile – Ludovic Tézier
Carlo Colombara – Balthazar
Valérie Nègre (director)
Andrea Blum (designer)
La Favorite Act II Picture Credit V Ponte
Paris may have two official opera houses (the Bastille and the Garnier) but it also has other very estimable musical theatres,such as the Châtelet and, perhaps most famously of all, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées has been the site of some of the most significant musical premieres of the 20th Century, most notably the riot provoked by The Rite of Spring in 1913, and this is the theatre’s centenary season. For their regular opera season they host the Orchestre National de France, and I was lucky enough to be in town when they were staging Donizetti’s Favorite, something not seen on British shores for many a long day. The theatre itself is fairly petite, giving a beautifully rounded acoustic, and it has lots of features that anchor its architecture securely in pre-war Paris, not least its sculptural façade.
Still, it’s what’s going on inside that counts. Happily (and obviously) the company staged La Favorite in the original French, as well they should. This irons out the extra absurdities that crept into the Italian version and, more importantly, the vowel sounds fit the music like a glove. The opera itself has always hovered slightly on the fringes of the accepted Donizetti canon, partly, I suspect, because it occupies a half-way house between lyrical tragedy and traditional French Grand Opera (it is neither and both at the same time) and it’s also unusual to have a mezzo rather than a full soprano as a lead role. The lower voice makes the character more sultry, though, something which befits the role as the King of Castile’s lover, the “favourite” of the title. Alice Coote sang the title role brilliantly, the high notes pinged out at the end of her Act 3 cabaletta acting as a noteworthy contrast to her predominantly murky, low-voiced portrayal of the part. The dark lustre of her voice deepened the impression of Léonor’s sensual nature, and she blended brilliantly with the virile baritone of Ludovic Tézier, meaning that their Act 2 duet was the highlight of the evening. The announcer before Act 1 claimed that Tézier was ill but was carrying on anyway. You’d never have guessed it to hear him, however, and he delivered the King’s aria and cabaletta at the start of the second act with thrilling confidence and power. Tézier has a beautiful voice and a commanding presence, most telling in the moment in Act 3 where he beautifully (but self-interestedly) gives up Léonor to Fernand. Marc Laho as the tenor hero was very impressive, firm in tone and confident with the tessitura, while Carlo Colombara’s authoritative bass completed the impressive quartet of principals, evoking Balthazar’s authority without forgetting the role’s lyrical qualities.
What you heard was significantly better than what you saw, however. Valérie Nègre’s production attempted to veer between minimalism and symbolism without deciding which it preferred, and Andrea Blum’s dull-as-dishwater designs were bland and unspecific, such fence-sitting doing nothing to further the telling of the story. The sounds from the pit were very strong, however, and, considering this opera’s genesis, I suspect that Donizetti would have been very pleased with the synthesis generated by a French orchestra conducted by an Italian.
You can find out more about the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées’s centenary season here.