DONIZETTI: Dom SÈbastien, roi de Portugal

For instance, would Bellini have
bested the success of I puritani had he lived to compose again? Or
what might Turandot have sounded like had Puccini not had that fatal
post-surgery heart attack? ìWhat ifî musings about Gaetano Donizettiís
last opera are especially bittersweet. Unlike Belliniís and Pucciniís,
Donizettiís final work, Dom SÈbastien, roi de Portugal, was
composed some four years before his death in 1848. Even though Caterina
was the last work he debuted, it actually had been composed a
year before Dom SÈbastien, the five-act grand opÈra that
premiered in Paris in 1843. It was during its rehearsals at the OpÈra that
the symptoms of cerebro-spinal syphilis, the disease that would kill the
composer, began to incapacitate him mentally and physically, signaling the
end of years of frenetic professional activity between Vienna, Paris, and a
variety of theaters in Italy.

In spite of Donizettiís health problems, the onset of which had troubled
Dom SÈbastienís genesis, the opera poses a critical ìwhat
if.î Had Donizetti been able to continue his prolific career, would
heóindeed, could heóhave outdone what he achieved in this opera?
Dom SÈbastien is a massive score of nearly symphonic proportions
expertly colored with elements that portray Europe and exotic Africa.
Moreover, by employing allusion to chant, Donizetti even reflected the
austerity of the Inquisition. Although there are ìsignatureî passages
that identify the opera as his, its magnitude introduces a heretofore unknown
Donizetti at his creative peakóironic, of course, since it also signals his
creative demise.

Those who know Donizetti through the ìstandardsîóDon
, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Líelisir
óowe it to themselves to hear Dom SÈbastien. An
1984 recording on the Legato Classics label exists but to get the full power
and sheer dynamic drama of the work, Opera Raraís three CD box with (as
always) exhaustive liner notes is a better choice. As usual, Opera Rara has
issued a recording that boasts historical integrity; the score employed was
based on the one edited by musicologist Mary Ann Smart and published by
Ricordi in 2003 as part of its Critical Edition of Donizettiís works. A
critical edition painstakingly traces all authorized versions and revisions,
thus allowing modern interpreters a number of performance choices that will
still reflect the work in its original forms. Opera Rara has taken this
responsibility to heart, even including libretto passages by Dom
ís librettist EugËne Scribe that Donizetti may never have
set. Also, three tracks faithfully interpret the music of the operaís
ballet, that ubiquitous element in French opera. Recorded in concert version
at Covent Garden in 2005, this production truly exhibits the entirety of
Donizettiís final work.

Even though this is the finest recording of Dom SÈbastien
available, it is not without road bumps. Although the Orchestra of the Royal
Opera House plays flawlessly under the baton of Mark Elder and that houseís
chorus supports the soloists admirably under Renato Balsadonnaís direction,
the cast is uneven. Sharing honors as the best of the cast are tenor Giuseppe
Filianoti, who sings SÈbastian, and baritone Simon Keenlyside as his Moorish
rival, Abayaldos. Both singers offer impressive interpretations, so
impressive, in fact, that they often show off the weaknesses of their fellow
cast members. Alone, Filianoti always offers a clear, strong voice,
impressive in such arias as ìSeul sur la terre.î Similarly,
Keenlysideís renderings are consistent and rich. He, too, is perhaps the
performer who most ably, through his voice alone, exploits the drama of the
role entrusted to him.

Vesselina Kasarova (Zayda) has a rich mezzo with lush dark overtones, but
her use of portamento at times approaches ìscooping,î a distraction as
she often approaches her notes from below. She almost always interprets the
Moorish girl with vocal intensity, but there are delightful moments, such as
in the aria ìO mon Dieu, sur la terre,î when she allows her lyrical
abilities to shine. Generally, she pairs well with the other singers,
absolutely critical in this opera which is heavily laden with complex
ensemble singing. However, the final notes of her Act II duet with Filianoti
(ìCourage!…Ù mon roi! Courageî) take her mezzo to an uncomfortable
altitude; while Filianoti hits his pitch with ease, she almost screeches
hers. On the other hand, she pairs perfectly with Keenlyside; especially
noteworthy is the Act II duet ìAh! Eh bien! Je le prÈfËre/ Ne crois pour
te soustraireî in which the dynamic climax allows her to remain comfortably
within her range.

One could have wished for a better vocal interpretation of the role of the
poet/soldier CamoÎns. From his first appearance, ìSoldat, jíai rÍvÈ la
victoireî baritone Carmelo Corrado Caruso disappoints. Certainly not
lacking in dramatic ability, his consistent wobble distracts from the vocal
lines Donizetti created for this character. He virtually circles his pitches,
at times so busily that it is hard to know where his is aiming. Although this
is particularly apparent in recitative, it also mars arias such as the
poetís elegant musing, ìO Lisbonne, Ù ma patrie!î

Other roles are handled ably: Alastair Miles as Dom Juam de Silva, tenor
John Upperton as Dom Antonio and the First Inquisitor, Andrew Slater as
Ben-SÈlim, Robert Gleadow as Dom Henrique, Martyn Hill as Dom Luis, Nigel
Cliffe as the Soldier, and John Bernays as the Third Inquisitor. Despite a
wonderful orchestra, cast, and chorus, the glory in this recording belongs to
Donizetti, whose score remains a wonder to this day. Because of its sheer
size, Dom SÈbastien would rarely be cost-effective for any company
to produce (hence, the Royal Operaís concert performances). Opera Raraís
recording, then, is the safest way to hear a magnificent opera that promises
to have its listeners wondering ìwhat if?î

Denise Gallo

image_description=Gaetano Donizetti: Dom SÈbastien, roi de Portugal
product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Dom SÈbastien, roi de Portugal
product_by=Vesselina Kasarova, Giuseppe Filianoti, Simon Keenlyside, Carmelo Caruso, Alastair Miles, Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra, Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus, Mark Elder (cond.)
product_id=Opera Rara 33 [3CDs]