When Donizetti received the commission from Milan for a new opera he was the toast of Vienna and Paris. He had something of a history with both the Milanese audience and the critics. The prevailing operatic style in Milan was still for blood and thunder works with tyrannical fathers, villainous baritones and if possible a mad scene. Donizetti decided to give them everything they might expect, only not quite in the right order.
London-based Roumanian-born soprano Nelly Miricioiu had a great success in 2011 with the Polish premiere of Donizetti’s Maria Padilla. So it was very apt that the work be chosen for Chelsea Opera Group’s final concert of the season, one celebrating Nelly Miricioiu’s 60th birthday on Sunday 27 May at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Conducted by Brad Cohen, Chelsea Opera Group fielded a strong cast with Nelly Miricioiu as Maria de Padilla, Marianne Cornetti as her sister Ines, Emma Carrington as Francisca, Paul Curievici as Don Luigi, Piotr Lemp, as Don Alfonso, Richard Morrison as Don Pedro, Marco Panuccio as Don Ruiz and Daniel Grice as Don Ramiro.
The plot concerns the usual soprano, tenor, baritone triangle. Maria is love with Don Pedro who hopes to seduce her. She refuses (with a dagger in her hand), he agrees to marry her, but insists they keep the marriage secret. Maria elopes with him and her father, Don Ruiz, casts her off. When Don Pedro becomes King Pedro (the historical Pedro the Cruel), Don Ruiz comes to court disguised, insults Pedro, is beaten by Pedro’s men and goes mad. All ends happily of course.
The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted, from this summary, that the soprano is in love with the wrong voice. She’s in love with the cruel and villainous baritone and the tenor is the tyrannical father, who gets a mad scene (rather than the soprano). Was Donizetti spicing things up a bit, or perhaps having some fun at the expense of Milanese audience.
None of the other principals has a part quite as substantial as that of the title role. The opera is in fact delineated by Maria’s relationships with Ines, Don Pedro and Don Ruiz, expressed in a series of powerful and substantial duets. Additionally, Don Pedro and Don Ruiz’s punishing encounter is set out in duet form as well.
But Donizetti has another trick for us. At the premiere, the ending had Maria expire from joy. But shortly after this he replaced this ending with the present happy one with an explosive cabaletta for Maria. No-one knows why, and Donizetti’s surviving letters are little help. As he tore the music out of the score, this tragic ending cannot now be reconstructed.
One final musico-historical conundrum, the opera is a sort of sequel to Donizetti’s La Favourite; Pedro being the son of Alfonso the hero of that earlier opera.
No-one would expect Nelly Miricioiu at 60 to have the same voice as she did 25 years ago, but what is remarkable is the way she still combines dramatic intensity with an ability to move her voice around complex coloratura. There are few singers around to match Miricioiu for giving dramatic weight and colour to each note of a complex run, or for her daring (this latter was something which conductor Brad Cohen commented upon in his tribute to the singer which prefaced the concert).
Maria de Padilla seems a part tailor made for Miricioiu’s style of dramatic virtuoso singing. Donizetti’s vocal line is complex, but the character undergoes dramatic extremes. Donizetti hints at the sort of simpler dramatic utterance which would become common later in the century. Not everything Miricioiu did was lovely, but it all had an element of dramatic truth and there are still few singers around today to match her vividness.
The opera ends with an extended cabaletta for Maria, and the opera does have its fair share of cavatinas and cabalettas to satisfy the Milanese musical taste. But the meat of the role is in the duets, these are extended musical sequences where Donizetti allowed himself freedom. Here he was looking forward, reflecting the changes to his style wrought by Vienna and Paris. In the duets and ensembles he allowed himself a greater structural flexibility and longer breadth.
The duet between Maria and Don Pedro (Richard Morrison), when he comes to seduce her, is anything but a love duet. She is infatuated with Don Pedro but has a dagger and insists on marriage. The result is a scene which swings between moods in startling fashion.
With Maria and her sister Ines (Marianne Cornetti), we are on more familiar ground in their duet, as the two express their love for each other using the familiar device of cascades of thirds, something that Miricioiu and Cornetti did brilliantly and for the reprise they even moved to sharing the same copy.
The final duet is the startling and touching scene between Maria and her father, Don Ruiz (Marco Panuccio), driven mad by the beating he has received. This is another scene where Donizetti allows himself flexibility of structure and is not constrained by form. Miricioiu and Panuccio created a striking and touching duet, which rather prefigured some of Verdi’s great father daughter duets.
As Maria’s lover, Don Pedro, Richard Morrison displayed a beautifully moulded line, the high tessitura of the baritone part seemingly not a problem for him. His platform demeanour was rather understated and something of this crept in to his voice which, for all its beauty had a slight cool distance. Don Pedro needs to convey an element of glamorous danger, and Morrison didn’t. His first scene with Miricioiu was technically well judged but lacked a passionate edge, after all he was supposed to be seducing the woman by force. And his scene with Pannucio lacked a feeling of danger, after all Don Pedro was known as Pedro the Cruel. But this scene has some curiously interesting moments, with the two male voices venturing some cascades of thirds which echoed those of Miricioiu and Cornetti in their duet. Was Donizetti trying to tell us to tell us that these two violent men were akin to brothers, or was something more ironic going on.
As a romantic lead, Don Pedro isn’t a huge part. He is absent for much of the third act and when he does appear in the final scene, Donizetti and his librettist seem to have realised that they have never given Don Pedro the chance to express his love for Maria. So he sings a lovely cavatina, beautifully realised by Richard Morrison.
Don Ruiz is an equally odd role, being absent in the first act, very much the tyrannical father bogey man. Only at the end of the second act does he appear and challenge Don Pedro, receiving a beating for his pains. The character’s main interest is in the long mad scene in the third act, when Maria tries to win her father back to sanity. Here Marco Panuccio seemed to relish the chance to do something different from the general run of Rodolfos and Pinkertons (he is Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly at Grange Park Opera). He has a beautiful voice and showed himself apt at colouring it during the mad scene. He created a touching relationship with Miricioiu’s Maria.
Marianne Cornetti has made something of a name for herself singing dramatic Verdi roles such as Eboli, Azucena and Amneris. But she seems to have an enviable ability to move her substantial voice around Donizetti’s vocal lines and to scale it aptly. Donizetti opens the opera with a duet for Ines (Cornetti) and her fiance, Don Luigi (Paul Curievici). Here Cornetti took time to warm up and her passage-work was inclined to be uneven. But she compensated by creating a vivid and appealing partnership with Curievici. In her duet with Miricioiu, Cornetti was fully on form and blended finely with Miricioiu. Ines is quite a substantial part and has a strong participation in the drama. Though the subsidiary soprano role, Donizetti made the part a real character and not just someone to make up the lines in ensembles. Cornetti clearly relished the opportunities given to her.
As Maria’s lovely, Don Luigi, Paul Curievici seize his moment of glory in the opening duet with Cornetti. Curievici was effective in creating a delightful relationship with Cornetti, even when he was not singing, this took the duet well past the conventions of concert opera. Curievici is a young singer whose career I have watched with interest over the last few years and it is pleasing to report that he has developed into a stylish Donizetti singer.
Piotr Lempa displayed a fine bass voice as Don Alfonso, who is killed between the first and second acts. Daniel Grice similarly impressed as Don Ramiro who appears in the second and third acts.
The performance wasn’t without incident. At one point Miricioiu lost her page in the score. And Panuccio bravely essayed a note in alt using head voices (a technique tenors of Donizetti’s time would have been familiar with), which didn’t quite come off, but I admired him for making the effort.
Donizetti made considerable use of the chorus in this opera, using them quite extensively to frame scenes. The opera opens with a short prelude which leads straight into a chorus of villagers. A structure which Donizetti uses again in the opera. The second act opens with a substantial chorus which sets the uneasy background to King Pedro’s reign.
Now, it has to be admitted that like many other choirs in London, the choir of Chelsea Opera Group has an ageing but enthusiastic personnel. Under chorus master Deborah Miles-Johnson, the choir has developed more presence over the last few years and they grasped enthusiastically the opportunities Donizetti gave them. Though in their big chorus at the opening of the second act I could have wished for rather more words.
Donizetti’s use of the orchestra in Maria Padilla reflects both the fact that Milan possessed a fine orchestra and that his style had developed since starting to write operas for Vienna and for Paris. Not only was the accompaniment richly expressive but Donizetti prefixed each act by an evocative prelude. The orchestra were on good form for Brad Cohen, who encouraged some seriously expressive playing from his players.
This was definitely a vintage Chelsea Opera Group evening. A strong cast, led by Nelly Miriociou under Brad Cohen’s clearly inspirational baton, meant that due dramatic weight was given to one of Donizetti’s unjustly neglected scores. And we celebrated Nelly Miriociou’s birthday in fine style.
product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Maria Padilla
product_by=Donna Ines Padila: Marianne Cornetti (soprano); Don Luigi: Paul Curievici (tenor); Donna Maria Padilla: Nelly Miricioiu (soprano); Francisca: Emma Carrington (mezzo-soprano); Don Alfonso di Pardo: Piotr Lempa (bass); Don Pedro: Richard Morrison (baritone); Don Ruiz di Padilla: Marco Panuccio (tenor); Don Ramiro: Daniel Grice (bass. Chorus and Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group. Brad Cohen (conductor). Chelsea Opera Group. Queen E;lizabeth Hall, London, 27th May 2012.
product_id=Above: Gaetano Donizetti