Gaetano Donizetti: La Favorite
Anthony Michaels-Moore, baritone, (Alphonse XI), Vesselina Kasarova, mezzo-soprano, (LČonor de Guzman), Ramón Vargas, tenor, (Fernand), Carlo Colombara, bass, (Balthazar), Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Marcello Viotti, cond.
RCA  66229  (2 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT: 2:29:59
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Gaetano Donizetti's La Favorite premiered at the Paris OpČra  December 2, 1840. The impressive cast included Rosine Stolz as LČonor, Gilbert-Louis Duprez as Fernand, and Nicolas Levasseur as Balthazar. The conductor was FranÁois-Antoine Habeneck, who also led the premieres of Rossini's Guillaume Tell, Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable, as well as Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and Benvenuto Cellini.

The opera was an extraordinary success. By 1904, Donizetti's La Favorite had received 650 performances at the OpČra alone. However, during the course of the 20th century,  the opera became far better known in a version translated from the original French into Italian, La Favorita. Philip Gossett, in his superb essay that accompanies the new RCA release, describes the Italian version as,  "a scandalous debasement of Donizetti’s opera. The mindless changes introduced into the plot to please Italian censors render the story incomprehensible. Since the translators wrote their verses without paying attention to the music, furthermore, Donizetti's beautifully wrought melodies and recitative are constantly disfigured."

And so, this RCA recording -- the first of the new critical edition of La Favorite -- offers a most welcome opportunity to enjoy Donizetti's original conception of one of his finest operas.  On the whole, La Favorite is well served by this new release. Best of the principals is the Fernand of Ramón Vargas. The Mexican tenor is in superb vocal estate, with the honeyed quality of his voice always in evidence. Top notes have impressive security and ring. Vargas manages to achieve the synthesis of elegance and passion that is crucial for success in this late bel canto work. His French diction is also the best among the principals. My only caveat is that I wish Mr. Vargas had displayed a bit more in the way of variety of dynamics. But on the whole this is a fine assumption of a most demanding role.

Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova is also impressive as LČonor. Her bright lyric mezzo is more than equal to the demands of the part. As is typical of this artist’s work, Ms. Kasarova offers an energetic declamation of the text that offers a constant variety of nuance. While her diction is not as pointed as that of Vargas, it is more than acceptable.

My reaction to the Alphonse XI of Anthony Michaels-Moore is somewhat less enthusiastic. The basic timbre of his voice is pleasing. He is also able to sport a genuine trill in the recitative preceding "LČonor, viens." However, I find the rather recessed placement of the voice inappropriate for this quintessential French lyric baritone role. A comparison with the Alphonse of Henri Albers in the 1912 OpČra-Comique recording (Marston 52010-2) demonstrates what is missing. Still, Michaels-Moore offers much attractive and energetic singing.  Carlo Colombara is solid as Balthazar. The minor role of "A gentleman" is sung by Lorenz Fehenberger. Could that possibly be the same Lorenz Fehenberger, born in 1912, who is the lead tenor in such recordings as a 1951 Un ballo in maschera (Gala) or a 1953 Lohengrin (DGG)? If so, bravo!

Marcello Viotti and the Münchner Rundfunkorchester provide accompaniment that allows ample room for the singers to make their points, without disrupting momentum. The recording, made during a performance April 11, 1999, is somewhat lacking in definition, but is still more than adequate.  This new RCA issue is a most welcome addition to the Donizetti discography. I also recommend investigating the previously noted Marston reissue of the 1912 OpČra-Comique recording. The sound is quite primitive, but the performance offers a priceless opportunity to hear La Favorite sung by artists who performed the opera at a time when it was very much part of the standard repertoire.

K.M. (Nov. 2000)