Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Donizetti and Early Verdi in the American West, January-June, 2012

December 26th, 2011

I suppose it is still taught in “opera appreciation” classes, that in the early 19th century Italy there were three composers (Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti), who constituted a bel canto “school” of opera. Later in the century, it is taught, Giuseppe Verdi and after him Giacomo Puccini replaced them in the Italian public’s and The World’s esteem.

I have a rather different perspective on how to categorize 19th century Italian opera. My position is to consider the work of one of the supposed “bel canto” composers, Gaetano Donizetti (especially those operas between 1830 and the end of this creative life in 1844) as notably different in the aggregate from the works of Rossini and Bellini, but much closer in style to those of Verdi written between 1839 (“Oberto”) and 1850 (“Stiffelio”). To describe this similarity in styles, I suggest the term “the Donizetti-Early Verdi continuum”.

One can make some generalizations about the Donizetti and Verdi operas written between 1830 and 1850. Most have soprano roles which require extraordinary vocal agility. Most have a Romantic tenor (whom we expect to be capable of singing a high C as a chest tone) who plays a character that is usually the love interest of the soprano’s, and a lyric baritone whose character more often than not is the rival of the tenor’s.

These operas form a cultural vanguard, in the sense that many of the latest contributions to Romantic era literature, drama and poetry provide the subject matter for the operas’ plots. But they also embrace tradition, in that the operas often observe such early 19th century Italian opera conventions as the cavatina-cabaletta combination, normally followed by a stretta and second cabaletta verse; the concertato, where the principals assemble for a concerted number (like the “Lucia” Sextet);  and rousing choruses that might follow or be accompanied by an onstage banda.

By my definition, such Donizetti works as “Anna Bolena”, “Maria Stuarda”, “Lucia di Lammermoor”,  Lucrezia Borgia”, “Roberto Devereux” and “La Favorite” would be considered as part of a category of works that includes also Verdi’s “Nabucco”, “Ernani”, “Attila” and “Luisa Miller”.

The description would account for these composers’ comic works as well, although Donizetti, with three megahit comedies, “L’Elisir d’Amore”, “La Fille du Regiment” and “Don Pasquale”,  would be the undisputed champion of this category. Verdi’s only effort during the two decades under consideration, “Un Giorno di Regno”, would not be considered as in the league of the Donizetti comedies, even those that are not as famous as the three works listed. (I will make further references to the Donizetti-Verdi relationship in an article to be published in San Diego Opera’s program notes for “Don Pasquale”.)

Three of these “Donizetti-Early Verdi” works will be performed in the American West during the first half of 2012:


Attila (Verdi), Seattle Opera, January 18, 21, 22 (m), 25 and 28, 2012.

Verdi’s ninth opera will be heard in two different productions (in Seattle in January and in San Francisco in June). Seattle will provide the opportunity for basso John Relyea to perform a role in a fully staged production in which he has appeared in concert form.

Although the historic Attila terrorized such fifth century French and German towns as Paris and those we now call Orleans, Strasbourg, Reims, Metz and Mainz, the legends about Attila have had as much impact on European culture as the facts. As an example, Attila is a character in the medieval Nibelungenlied, arguably as important as Siegfried and Bruennhilde. The many layers of fact and legend provide for ever shifting layers in what to think about this “scourge of God”.

Seattle will bring to American shores the Charles Edwards production, originally seen at the Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg, France, and later in Liege, Belgium and Tel Aviv, Israel, which relates the concept of “civilized” warriors fighting barbarians to the 21st century. Bernard Uzan is the stage director, Carlos Montanaro the conductor.

[Below: John Relyea as Attila the Hun; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Venezuelan soprano Ana Lucrecia Garcia (who is scheduled to appear in both the Seattle and San Francisco “Attila” productions) is the Odabella. Spinto tenor Antonello Palombi is the Foresto. Marco Vratogna, the Italian baritone familiar to San Francisco Opera audiences, is the Ezio. Veteran basso Michael Devlin appears in the cameo role of Leone.

For my performance review, see: Reveling in Early Verdi: Relyea, Garcia, Vratogna, Palombi in Montanaro’s Uncut “Attila” – Seattle Opera, January 14, 2012.

Don Pasquale (Donizetti), San Diego Opera, March 10, 13, 16 and 18(m), 2012.

The San Diego Opera, the most Southwesterly of continental U. S. opera companies, mounts its  famous production of “Don Pasquale”, the most successful opera of the final few months of Donizetti’s creative life. The production, both created and directed by David Gately, is, in Gately’s concept, set in the Far West of old.

The opera has been described as the crowning achievement of the buffa style of comic opera, whose predecessors includes Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”.  But “Don Pasquale” has  layers of the kind of character development that is a characteristic of Donizetti’s major comedies.

[Below: Ernesto (Charles Castronovo, in tub), thrown out of his uncle’s house, goes to Miss Kitty’s for a bath; resized image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

The San Diego Opera has assembled a major league cast of singers for the production’s revival. The Don himself is played by John Del Carlo, and the conspirators against him are Charles Castronovo (Ernesto), Daniele De Niese (Norina) and Jeff Mattsey (Dr Malatesta). Marco Guidarini conducts.

For my performance review, see: De Niese, Castronovo, Del Carlo Delight in a Delirously Daffy “Don Pasquale” – San Diego Opera, March 10, 2012.


Mary Stuart – Maria Stuarda (Donizetti), Houston Grand Opera, April 21, 27, 29(m), May 2 and 4, 2012.

The Houston Grand Opera had commissioned a new production of Donizetti’s “Mary Stuart” with a European design team, but “artistic differences” scuttled the project. Instead, noting that the Minnesota Opera has been mounting new productions of Donizetti works for several years, opted to use that company’s production which debuted at the beginning of 2011.

Stage Director Kevin Newbury and his creative team (set designer Neil Patel and costume designer Jessica Jahn) will bring the Minnesota concept to the Lone Star State.

[Below: Joyce DiDonato as Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scots; edited image of a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The opera’s title role wil be filled by one of the most illustrious of the alumni of Houston Grand Opera Young Artist’s program, Joyce di Donato. She will be joined by the Elizabeth I of Katie van Kooten and the Leicester of Eric Cutler. Oren Gradus is the Cecil and Robert Gleadow the Talbot. Houston Grand Opera’s recently promoted Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers will conduct.

For my performance review, see: Joyce DiDonato is Vocally and Dramatically Convincing in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” – Houston Grand Opera, April 27, 2012


Attila (Verdi) San Francisco Opera, June 12, 15, 20, 23, 28 and July 1(m), 2012

Nicola Luisotti conducted performances of “Attila” at Milan’s La Scala in a new co-production with the San Francisco Opera. The production team (also responsible for San Francisco Opera Fall 2011’s new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”)  was stage director Gabriele Lavia, set designer Alessandro Camera and costume designer Andrea Viotti. Luisotti will be in the pit in June 2012 to conduct the San Francisco performances of the co-production.

[Below: Ferruccio Furlanetto as Attila; edited image of a photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The title role in the opera will be sung by basso Ferruccio Furlanetto, appearing 32 years after his San Francisco Opera debut, but following an absence of a decade and a half from the War Memorial Opera House.  Ana Lucrecia Garcia, who was Odabella at La Scala, will perform the role yet again in San Francisco. Quinn Kelsey is the Ezio, with Fabio Sartori and Diego Torre sharing the role of Foresto.

The last person to have sung Attila on the San Francisco stage was Samuel Ramey in 1991. He will return to San Francisco to sing the character role of Leone.

[For my performance review, see: “Attila” in Italy with a Phenomenal Ferruccio Furlanetto – San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2012


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