Opera Warhorses

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In Quest of Donizetti – A 2007-08 Itinerary

August 7th, 2007

Fifty years ago this Fall, an important event in the history of opera, previously chronicled on this website, took place at the San Francisco Opera. Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer, replacing Maria Callas, whom the San Francisco Opera fired, took on the first bel canto opera role of her career, the title role in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”. Followed by performances in Trieste as Lucia, and then significant other bel canto roles, she came to be associated with a “Donizetti revival” (for which arguably Callas herself had set the stage).

Within a few years, other sopranos – importantly including Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballe and Beverly Sills – were also promoting revivals of works by Donizetti, as well as by his eminent elder contemporary, Gioacchino Rossini (whom Donizetti helped chase into retirement from composing operas) and the young melodic genius who chose to be Donizetti’s avowed rival, Vincenzo Bellini.

From the perspective of 50 years, the Donizetti revival seems to be rather successful, although only a few of the revived operas appear to have secured a sufficient leasehold that we might begin to think that they will not slip back into obscurity again. Two Donizetti operas have never lost popularity – “Lucia” and “L’Elisir d’Amore”. The latter is probably the most successful comic opera, after Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia”, of all time. Nor have Donizetti’s two other currently popular comic works – “Don Pasquale” and “La Fille du Regiment” – ever been out of the opera repertoire for very long.

The most secure of the Donizetti revivals from the latter half of the 20th century appear to be “Anna Bolena”, “La Favorite” and “Maria Stuarda”. (Elsewhere, I will refer to the latter opera by the new moniker bestowed on it by the San Diego Opera, “Mary Queen of Scots”.) But “Lucrezia Borgia” and “Roberto Devereux” clearly have some life in them, and there are a number of others that Gencer and the other sopranos and mezzos performed regularly, that we should not give up on yet.

In fact, it might be quite the reverse. The interest in performing the lesser known works of Haendel (50 years ago ALL of his works were lesser known), suggests that teams of musicologists and (hopefully, the better behaved) concept directors still have treasures to bring to life among the less traveled and even the wholly untrampled Donizetti paths.

Nor does it need to be exclusively the superstar soprano and mezzo roles that determine what Donizetti operas should be revived. There were superstars among the men that he wrote for also, and it is not implausible that contemporary male superstars might emerge who are interested in promoting Donizetti revivals of their own.

With this web-page, I am proposing that to honor the 50th anniversary of Gencer’s first “Lucia”, we begin a sojourn to sample the contemporary performances of Donizetti operas in various opera houses. Since I intend actually to travel to these places, and have much more to do than just attend Donizetti performances, it requires considerable attention to scheduling and travel logistics. There will be obvious places where this Donizetti sojourner might have traveled, but simply will have to forgo.

This is the initial group of Donizetti operas I expect to attend and review as part of this celebration over the next ten months. I even have included a performance by Donizetti’s erstwhile rival, Bellini.

As it turns out, the first three on the list are his most famous comic operas. The non-comic works begin early in 2008.


L’Elisir d’Amore (Donizetti), Paris September, 2007 These days, one cannot think of comic opera without considering what an impact that French director/designer Laurent Pelly has had on the genre. He already has had great success at Santa Fe Opera, transporting his productions of Offenbach’s “La Belle Helene” (2003), Massenet’s “Cendrillon” (2006) and Rameau’s “Platee”, and his reading of Donizetti’s “Fille du Regiment” is scheduled for the New York Met next Spring, including one of the 2007-08 season’s six opera performances to be beamed nationally into selected movie theatres.

However, to see this season’s performances of Pelly’s 2006 production of “L’Elisir d’Amore” one has to choose between the National Opera de Paris at the Bastille in September or the Royal Opera in London in November. Paris (with Dmitry Korchak as Nemorino) fits my schedule best, so it’s off to the Place de la Bastille with the pretty Opera National de Paris tickets to “L’Elixir d’Amour” in hand.

[Below: Nemorino (Dmitry Korchak, left) has gained the affection of Adina (here, Aleksandra Kurzak); resized image of a Catherine Ashmore photograph for the Royal Opera.]


There is even a somewhat offbeat tangent to the Gencer – San Francisco celebration. Two of the announced “L’Elixir” cast members have appeared in one role each at the San Francisco Opera, Desiree Rancatore (Adina) as Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and Ambrogio Maestri (Dulcamara) as Renato in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera”.

Coincidentally, each was the first Fall opening night of a new San Francisco Opera Director, respectively Pamela Rosenberg (2001) and David Gockley (2006). Gencer’s first Lucia occurred during the first season in which Kurt Herbert Adler, whose own important contributions to the Donizetti revival will be chronicled here, himself assumed the title of the opera’s General Director.

For the subsequent review of this performance, see: Hayseed Hilarity: The Pelly “L’Elisir” in Paris – September 16, 2007.


Don Pasquale (Donizetti), Zurich, September 2007In my Fall 2005 review of Zurich Opera’s production of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino”, I noted what joy conductor Nello Santi brings to any opera he conducts, even “Forza”, which has only sporadic episodes of light-heartedness in it. One cannot resist the idea of Santi conducting an opera that is itself wholly a thing of joy.

[Below: a scene from the Grischa Asagaroff production of “Don Pasquale” for the Zurich Oper; resized image, based on a production photograph for the Zurich Oper.]


Zurich Opera is repeating 2006’s Grischa Asagoroff production of “Pasquale” with its traditional sets by Luigi Perego. The production will have a new Ernesto, Celso Albelo, replacing Juan Diego Florez (since even the ubiquitous JDF cannot be everywhere). But with the estimable Ruggero Raimondi scheduled to return as the Don, and with Isabel Rey (Norina) and Oliver Widmer (Malatesta) repeating their roles, it’s the perfect excuse for a return to Switzerland.

For the subsequent review of this performance, see: No Norina: A “Don Pasquale” Showstopper in Zurich – September 23, 2007


La Fille du Regiment (Donizetti), Houston, November, 2007 Production designer Emilio Sagi and conductor Riccardo Frizza have collaborated on several projects in recent years, including this update of the Daughter of the Regiment, moving the story to a rural French community that American soldiers had liberated from Vichy France at the end of World War II.

Laura Claycomb (Marie), Bruno Practico (Sulpice) and Ewa Podles (Marquise) are joined by Barry Banks, who shares responsibility for Tonio with Juan Diego Florez in Laurent Pelly’s Spring 2008 production of the opera at the New York Met. The production shown in Houston originated at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna in 2004.

For the subsequent review of this performance, see: Claycomb, Podles, Banks Shine in Houston “Fille du Regiment” – November 3, 2007


Mary Queen of Scots – Maria Stuarda (Donizetti), San Diego, February, 2008 One of the brilliant promotional moves as the Donizetti revival took steam in the 1970s was the decision of the New York City Opera to package “Anna Bolena”, “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux” as a Tudor Trilogy, with the star power of Beverly Sills enlisted to assure that the Trilogy would be wildly successful.

But, of course, Donizetti, who, indeed was drawn to the highly dramatic situations in which Henry VIII and his female relatives (wives, daughters and niece Mary Stuart) managed to entangle themselves, composed three separate operas, rather than a Trilogy, and each opera has its own extraordinary merit. The effect of “Stuarda’s” final scena is always breathtaking. And the second act confrontation between the two women principals (playing the Virgin Queen and her Catholic cousin) can be electrifying.

We are all mourning Beverly Sills, and many of us who travel to San Diego to hear one of her most famous roles will recall that Sills chose the San Diego Opera as the site for her farewell to opera (as Adele in series of performances of Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” also starring Dame Joan Sutherland). Even though arrangements for the 2008 performances were made years before Sills’ death, San Diego will be mounting Sills’ own 35 year old sets, that were designed by Ming Cho Lee. It is as if San Diego has planned for these performances to be a special tribute to her.

Andrew Sinclair will direct and Edoardo Miller conduct the young cast – Angela Gilbert (Mary Stuart), Kate Aldrich (Eliizabeth I), Yegishe Manucharyan (Leicester) and Reinhard Hagen (Talbot).

For the subsequent review of this performance, see: Jaho, Aldrich Triumph in San Diego “Maria Stuarda” – February 16, 2008


I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Bellini), Pittsburgh, May, 2008 Thor Steingraber produced a modern dress version of Bellini’s “Capuleti” for the Los Angeles Opera in 1999, for Laura Claycomb (Giulietta) and Susanne Mentzer (Romeo). Claycomb is repeating her famous interpretation of the role in the Steingraber concept at the Pittsburgh Opera this coming Spring. Claycomb’s Romeo is scheduled to be Vivica Genaux, with Arthur Espiritu (Tybalt) and David Pittsinger (Capulet).

For the subsequent review of this performance, see: Beautiful Singing in Bellini’s “Capuleti”: Pittsburgh Opera – May 3, 2008


Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti), San Francisco, June, 2008 Chicago’s Mary Zimmerman has created a new production of “Lucia” for the Metropolitan Opera, debuting next month, with Natalie Dessay as Lucia and Marcello Giordano and Giuseppe Filianoti, both appearing throughout the season as Edgardo. In June, the Met’s production, along with Dessay and Filianoti, travels to San Francisco.

For the subsequent review of this performance (whose production was changed after it was originally announced), see: Dessay’s Lucia di Lammermoor Delights in San Francisco – June 29, 2008


For the series of discussions of Gencer’s 1957 performances of “Lucia” and Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” with San Francisco Opera, see:

S. F. Opera’s “La Traviata” in San Diego – October 31, 1957

Callas Fired, An Opera Changed – S. F. Opera’s “Aida” at the Fox, November 7, 1957

Young Gencer’s Stunning “Lucia” at L. A. Shrine – November 10, 1957

Tags: Quests and Anticipations