La Favorite: beautiful bel canto in Liège

La Favorite: beautiful bel canto in Liège

The Opéra Royal de Wallonie’s new production of Donizetti’s rarely-performed French opera La Favorite is definitely worth a visit, not in the least due to tenor Celso Albelo’s glorious singing.

La Favorite (1840) stems from Donizetti’s Parisian period and is a somewhat different beast compared to his often-performed and well-known Italian operas. True to French grand operatic style, the opera’s libretto interweaves historic facts and fictional dramatic elements.

Historical drama

The opera centers around the historical figure of Leonor de Guzmán, lover of the 14th-century king of Castile and Leon, Alfonso XI. As the king’s favorite extramarital lover (hence the opera’s title), she lives on an island in a semi-captive state. In the opera, Fernand, a young novice in a nearby convent has fallen in love with Léonor. She reciprocates his amorous sentiments, but protests that it can come to nothing – concealing why that is, exactly.

ensemble of la favorite
Celso Albelo, Mario Cassi and Sonia Ganassi in La Favorite (C) Lorraine Wauters

The poor monk takes it to mean that the difference in status constitutes the problem, and decides to join the army of king Alphonse, hoping to acquire the honor and status needed to make a marriage possible. In the meantime, Alphonse’s relationship with his favorite causes some unrest, and Balthazar, father superior of Fernand’s old convent, crashes a royal party and denounces the king.

When Alphonse learns of the love between Léonor and Fernand and Fernand’s desire to marry Léonor, he spitefully agrees to wed the two. Prior to the wedding, Léonor feels that she needs to tell Fernand that he is about a severely tainted woman and she sends her confidante Ines on her way. Ines, however, is captured and fails to deliver the message in time. When Fernand discovers whom he has married after the wedding, he is deeply shaken, denounces Léonor and leaves to return to his life as a monk.

After he has been officially ordained, Léonor visits him in the monastery. She is dying and wants to assure him that she truly loved him and that he was not the butt of a cruel game on her part. Fernand forgives her and wants to leave with her. This proves impossible, however: Léonor dies, leaving Fernand devastated.

Fine bel canto singing

The role of Léonor was sung impressively by mezzosoprano Sonia Ganassi, although some roughness around the edges could be heard, especially in her big aria (‘O mon Fernand’). I cannot quite put my finger on it, but I wasn’t as moved by her singing and acting as I would like to have been. It seemed as though she didn’t manage to embody the character completely.

I have heard Celso Albelo in some smaller roles in the past, and it is a pleasure to hear how much he has grown vocally: his tenor voice is mellifluous in the soft and tender musical lines, and strong and clear in the more anguished outcries. He embodies his role completely and his entire performance is gripping.

Celso Albelo tenor in La Favorite
Celso Albelo as Fernand (c) Lorraine Wauters

Mario Cassi was equally gripping in the role of Alphonse XI, although it sounded as though he was dealing with a seasonal cold at times. His warm baritone voice and impressive acting abilities made his Alphonse a force to reckon with.

The young bass Ugo Guagliardo gave a vocally fine performance as the stern Balthazar, also incorporating the necessary gravitas in his acting.

Science Fiction

Rosetta Cucchi’s production was traditional at heart, and followed the libretto closely. The visuals of the production were, however, futuristic and seemed to be inspired by science fiction such as Star Wars (the monks resembled Jedis) and Game of Thrones (Léonor and her companions rather resembled Daenerys Targaryen). I personally rather liked the aesthetic, although I didn’t quite understand what it all meant, exactly – Cucchi’s program notes were rather incomprehensible.

Luciano Acocella conducted the performance nicely, although it seemed the orchestra needed some time to warm up and come together. The chorus sang adequately, but not up to the high level I’m used to in other opera houses.

What I rather like about the Opéra Royal de Wallonie is that the opera house dares to stage rare opera’s, and that it seems aware that that is one of its unique selling points in an international context (also catering to Dutch and German audiences). I’m personally already looking forward to Auber’s Le Domino Noir and Rossini’s La donna del Lago.

Attended: 19 November at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège (Belgium)

For more information, visit the Opéra Royal’s website.

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