Stylish and Powerful

Donizetti's 'Belisario'

reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL

Donizetti wrote Belisario shortly after the success of Lucia di Lammermoor. It can have been no co-incidence that the librettist for both operas was Salvatore Cammarano, but in fact Donizetti had had the libretto for Belisario on his desk for quite some time. That he might have been doubtful about setting it is perfectly understandable: the libretto is in many ways an unsatisfactory and oddly constructed piece; the opera is redeemed by some terrific writing from Donizetti. Chelsea Opera Group chose to give this piece a rare outing for their first collaboration with Richard Bonynge, on Sunday 13 February 2011 at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall.

The opera concerns the historical character of Belisarius (Belisario) who was a successful general under Emperor Justinian (Giustiniano). Onto this has been crafted a story of marital discord and parricide. Antonina, Belisario's wife (Nelly Miricioiu) has learned that Belisario (David Soar) had their infant son killed because of a prophecy. So that when Belisario returns to Byzantium in triumph, she arranges with Eutropio, Captain of the Imperial Guard (Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks) to forge additions to Belisario's letters to prove that he has been a traitor to the Emperor (Graeme Broadbent), who condemns Belisario much to the dismay of Belisario's daughter Irene (Yvonne Howard) and Alamiro, a prisoner who he has adopted (Aldo Di Toro). So finishes Part 1.

Part 2 is entirely taken up with Belisario's release from prison, where he has been blinded and is notable mainly for a lovely duet for Belisario and Irene. Part 3 opens with Belisario and Irene encountering Alamiro, now leading rebel forces, who is discovered to be Belisario's long lost son Alexis (not actually killed as a child). Despite being blind, Belisario leads the Byzantine forces to triumph but is killed (all off stage). The final scene consists of Antonina, now repentant, confessing her sins to the Emperor and attempting to get absolution from the dying Belisario, though he dies before he can do so.

There are various problems with the above. First there is no love interest at all; in fact the lead tenor (Alamiro) mainly interacts with the baritone (Belisario). The lead soprano, Antonina, has a single aria in Part 1 and then doesn't appear until the final scene when she has another pair of arias. The frustrating thing is that these three arias are all tremendous and if only the librettist Cammarano had allowed us to see something of Antonina's development, the opera would have been far stronger. The libretto is rather cavalier with the smaller roles; Eutropio (Antonina's co-conspirator) only appears in part 1. The business with Alamiro being Belisario's son is compressed into a tiny space and seems profoundly redundant.

The libretto was based on a play and in structure the opera text has the feel of a far longer piece which has been badly compressed, removing important transition material. What the libretto consists of is a series of very strong scenes, poorly connected. Donizetti obviously responded to the individual scenes as he contributed some powerful music.

The strongest drawn character is Antonina, with her three finely contrasted arias. The first of vengeance, and then the final two of increasingly distraught remorse; the closing scene with Antonina deprived of Belisario's blessing is very powerful stuff indeed. Donizetti wrote Antonina as a strong woman; after all she is the mother of an adult son, rather than a little girl. His writing brings the role closer to Verdi's early killer roles of Odabella and Abigaille. Nelly Miriocioiu, with her strongly characterised line and idiomatic feel for bel canto, would have seemed on paper to be ideal for the role. She began well enough, but was tempted by the vengeance aria to push the resinous tone a little too far. She still has the admirable ability to move her voice round Donizetti's fioriture. But there was far too much of a feeling that she was managing her voice; that the role no longer sits comfortably. It may be that she was simply having an off day, but we came away feeling that though her performance was never less than acceptable, it would have been far preferable to have heard her perform it a few years ago.

David Soar sang Belisario's rather plain part quite admirably. Belisario seems to do little but suffer in the opera: all his triumphs occur off stage and his main redeeming feature is his love for his daughter and son. Soar projected this suffering nobility rather well and sang with a lovely sense of line. His duet with Yvonne Howard, in Part 2, was one of the high points of the opera. Irene only gets a single aria, but her character seems to spend a lot of time on stage reacting to others; in some ways she is the most developed character in the piece. Yvonne Howard sang the role admirably, capturing the element of melancholy sadness.

Aldo Di Toro (Australian born, Italian based) was the flexible voiced tenor hero, making much of what little Donizetti gave him, imbuing the role with impetuous passion. Let's hear him in a more gratefully written role. Graeme Broadbent was a wonderfully dark-voiced and imposing Emperor. Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks (Eutropio), Richard Wiegold (Eusebio, Un centurione) and Christopher Childs Santos (Ottario) provided admirable support. The Chelsea Opera Group chorus seems to have grown somewhat, and under the tutelage of Deborah Miles-Johnson has increased in confidence.

Unfortunately Bonynge is no technician when it comes to conducting. Both chorus and orchestra needed something more clearly defined than his expressive but vague beat, so that there were moments of instability at the more awkward corners of the work. But Bonynge brought a lifetime's experience of this style of music to bear, and both chorus and orchestra followed him admirably in shaping the music and the result was, at times, rather stylish and powerful.

Copyright © 16 February 2011
Robert Hugill
London UK

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