It isn’t every day that we get a world-premiere of a Donizetti opera – 180 years after it was written! – one requiring detective work and archaeology to reconstruct it from various source materials.
L’Ange de Nisida, commissioned by Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris, was not staged because the house had gone bankrupt, and with the impossibility of producing the work in Naples owing to the plot involving a King of that city the composer rapidly abandoned the idea in favour of using the material elsewhere. Much of the music found its way into La Favorite, Donizetti inserting autograph pages of L’Ange de Nisida into his new score with annotations and amendments that largely obscure the original. The remaining pages, without a binding and thus disordered, were bundled up and archived. In addition the autograph score of La Favorite is lost with these insertions, though a microfilm copy exists. Painstaking research, involving a working copy of the libretto, allowed the re-ordering, reassembly and editing of material for this performing edition. Donizetti had not completed the orchestration, so seventy-five bars have been realised by Martin Fitzpatrick who was also commissioned by Opera Rara to compose a Prelude. Opera Rara will release a recording with these forces.
Truthfully, L’Ange de Nisida is no masterpiece, but it certainly is no worse and often better than other broadly contemporary operatic works. The plot is a curious mix of a fairly stock love-triangle replete with misunderstandings of intention and culminating in tragedy, to which is appended an inconsequential buffo sub-plot involving an inept chamberlain – the humour wears thin rather quickly.
The five principals all have some demanding music to sing. Mark Elder and the Royal Opera House Orchestra certainly give the piece every chance to shine – some fabulous and virtuosic woodwind- and horn-playing – and treating the string-writing as far more than vocal support. There are fascinating glimpses of the type of music that the young Verdi could have heard and been inspired by. Elder’s great sense of pace allied to dramatic purpose and his understanding of singers’ needs are all strongly evident. There are off-stage choral effects – voices from a monastery chapel – which are realised exceptionally here.
As the hapless Don Gaspar, Laurent Naouri excels at projecting the comedic aspects of the role, spitting out all those rapid-fire consonants to great effect and engagement. As a native francophone he also brings a French touch to this essentially Italian character. Vito Priante is appropriately regal – spinning out long-breathed phrases with a true sense of line, a feeling of power in reserve and with suave tone. David Junghoon Kim as the love-struck soldier with a strong sense of honour is at his best in the bravura high-tessitura moments where he is utterly fearless. His voice also has a plangent quality that is effective in reflective moments, though he could use the text a little more imaginatively at times. Joyce El-Khoury takes the part of Sylvia, somewhat passive dramatically and whose sudden demise is formulaic and unconvincing. El-Khoury does what she can to bring pathos, but whilst she impresses with her agility and commitment her singing sometimes lacks the daredevil abandon one expects in a bel canto heroine, even an early prototype thereof; on this occasion it never felt as if the voice quite took flight and dusted the chandeliers on the way. As the Monk Evgeny Stavinsky really impresses with his richly cavernous, well-focussed stentorian utterances – he has a great future in Italian Opera and especially in those great Verdi roles.
So, a thoroughly satisfying performance of an uneven work; full credit for the vision, scholarship and dedication needed to bring this work to the stage spotlight.