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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Opera Review: The Bride Wore Yellow

Bel Canto at Caramoor mounts La Favorite.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
(This review is presented in collaboration with our friends at OperaPulse.)
Clémentine Margaine (center) and Santiago Ballerini in La Favorite.
Photo by Gabe Palacio for the Caramoor Festival.
Sometimes it takes an exceptional revival to bring an opera back from the grave. That's what happened Saturday night when the annual Bel Canto at Caramoor series turned its attention to Donizetti's La Favorite, a show that held the stage in Paris from its premiere in 1840 until 1894. This performance, held on July 11 featured the Orchestra of St. Luke's under the baton of Will Crutchfield. For the performance of this difficult work, Mr. Crutchfield assembled  a slew of strong young singers execute the original French version of this opera with style and flair.

La Favorite  used to be a repertory staple, but it disappeared from the stage after 1918. It was performed occasionally in a heavily censored Italian translation that obscured many of its important plot points. This concert performance on the stage of the Venetian Theater used the original French text, and included the complete ballet music plus the restoration of an important cabaletta for baritone and mezzo that had not been heard since the opera's opening night.

The original French libretto (by Eugene Scribe) has that perfect operatic cross between the romantic and the ridiculous, telling the story of Fernand, a novice monk who leaves his habit behind to woo Leonore, who is secretly the mistress or "Favorite" of King Alphonse of Spain. The King, succumbing to political pressure from Rome agrees to allow the lovers to marry but they instead choose to die from suffocating waves of remorse for their respective sins. There are echoes of the high romantic style that infused the great operas of Verdi and the music is among Donizetti's richest and most energetic scores.

As Fernand, Santiago Ballerini sang with a formidable and flexible instrument, moving nimbly through his upper register. His tone was sweet and plush in the cavatinas, with the fast cabaletta sections allowing him to display virtuosity and a precise tonal control. Although his voice hardened when pressed to full power, Mr. Ballerini is a major and emerging bel canto talent whose career has nowhere to go but up.

In the title role, Clémentine Margaine's powered the opera with her strong, chesty mezzo. She possesses a resonant low register and tossed off dazzling highs sung with full-throated power. The only down-sides were  a cadmium-yellow concert gown that she wore for two acts, and a tendency to sing with her head downward. This may be a by product of her height but it gave the impression that the singer was more interested in the contents of her role than in interacting with her co-stars at key moments.

Stephen Powell nearly stole the opera as Alphonse, the arrogant king who doesn't really care about the judgment of others regarding his sex life. This was an exciting performance by the veteran baritone, with firm, resonant notes and a strong stage presence that dominated every scene he was in. The long-missing cabaletta (it comes in Act II just before the ballet) was thrilling stuff, as he and Ms. Margaine gripped and ripped in a dazzling display of bel canto style.

The comprimario parts were well filled. Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs made the most of Baldessare, the opera's moral conscience and vigorous opponent to the King's machinations . Even better was soprano Isabella Gaudí, sunny and memorable in the small part of Ines, Leonore's hapless handmaiden. This member of the Caramoor Young Artists Program is another talent to watch, with considerable stage charisma to go with her potent, silvery instrument.

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