As an audience member, it’s very easy to see an opera, especially one performed in concert, enjoy it, and think, “Why isn’t this piece done more?” Often, there are some clear reasons why. Sometimes it’s staging difficulties with what an opera calls for. Sometimes it’s a part that poses specific casting problems. Donizetti’s La Favorite, though, poses none of these issues, and the performance last Saturday night at the Caramoor Festival under Will Crutchfield’s direction made a strong case for why it’s time for this opera to reclaim its place in today’s bel canto repertoire.
La Favorite opened in Paris in 1840 with a libretto in French by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaez. While it has been commonplace to perform the opera in its Italian translation as “La Favorita”, Bel Canto at Caramoor opted to use the original French text. The opera details the love triangle between Alphonse XI, the King of Spain, Fernand, a monk, and Leonor, the King’s mistress. The music is charming and expressive, and the drama is motile but for the unsurprisingly ridiculous final scene. Despite the opera’s playing like a soap opera, the nature of the story leaves room for many different directorial interpretations(something Monica Lewinsky-esque immediately comes to mind) and could potentially be levied into a moving exploration of sexual exploitation and the subsequent shame and stigma attached.
Bel Canto at Caramoor has been in place at the Caramoor Festival since 1997. Under the direction of maestro Will Crutchfield, the program has consistently offered music of the highest quality with singers to match. Caramoor’s bucolic gardens nearby Spainsh Courtyard, and Renaissance furnishings in the Rosen House conjured medieval Spain and the Alcazar, perfect for an opera set in Spain.
The biggest revelation of this performance wasn’t Donizetti’s taught, potential-filled opera, though. It was French mezzo Cleméntine Margaine. In the title role, Margaine made her Caramoor and New York debut with aplomb. Her voice, rich, agile, and, at times, smoldering, filled the Venetian Theater, and her dignified stage presence hinted at a deeper confidence that enriched the character of Leonor in this semi-staged production. Most impressive, though, was her command of the text. While I’m not familiar with her work in other languages, her idiomatic interpretation of the French text went beyond what is considered necessary to a Francophone singer. Each word was sculpted into a phrase that delivered equal parts musicality and meaning. It was a masterful and layered performance of a complex role. The world has found a wonderful Leonor.
She was well matched in her Fernand. Argentinean tenor Santiago Ballerini lended a voice of bel canto brilliance to the part of Leonor’s paramour. Despite his effortful, near-strained high notes and seeming discomfort with some of the libretto’s French, Ballerini delivered an expressive, italianate performance.
Stephen Powell, a frequent Caramoor performer, brought an authoritative voice and brooding nature to the sinister role of Alphonse, though Powell is even better served in roles that demonstrate the entire breadth of his talent, from fury to sensitivity. Daniel Mobbs, another Caramoor mainstay who seems to improve with every performance, was a brutal Balthazar with a deep, dark bass-baritone to match. Isabella Gaudĺ was an appropriately cheerful Inès and SungWook Kim delivered his usual solid singing as Don Gaspar.
Caramoor’s next opera is on July 25th when Dialogues des Carmelites takes the stage(and the guillotine). More information about it can be found here.