Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal

Dom Sébastien: G. Filianoti
Dom Antonio: E. Cossutta
Juam De Sylva: D. Rigosa
Le Camoëns: C. Corrado Caruso
Dom Henrique: L. Leoni
Ben-Selim: E. Capuano
Abayaldos: M. Gagliardo
Zayda: E. Shkosa
Dom Luis: S. Consolin

Bergamo, Teatro Donizetti

Bergamo's traditional fall season was capped by an eagerly-awaited staging of the complete Dom Sébastien, Gaetano Donizetti's final opera. The confusing performing options and its very scale only served to increase the feeling in this century that this was an unrealizable work. Preparation of a new critical edition by Mary Ann Smart coupled with great efforts by the Teatro Communale of Bologna with Bergamo's Teatro Donizetti, designer Pier Luigi Pizzi, conductor Daniele Gatti and ballet soloists have laid those prejudices to rest. If this production, the first Italian staging since 1955, was not a complete success, the reasons had little to do with the opera itself.

As a genre, grand-opéra is a resource-heavy undertaking, with visual spectacle combined with a complex sound palette of sound encompassing a clutch of superb soloists, chorus and large orchestra. The libretto-and this one by Eugčne Scribe is a prime example-ideally has just enough history to be believable but a large dose of fantasy to fill the prescribed five acts with attention-grabbing situations. Regarding the principal characters, the aim is to externalize their emotions for public display rather than engage them in conventionally believable feelings. (The operas of Richard Wagner can be seen as attempts to reform this structure.)

The high risk/high reward system at the Paris Opéra in the 1840s was a great lure because success here would be well compensated. The forces available were unparalleled elsewhere; and far from feeling constricted by the stylistic conventions requirements, composers like Donizetti could easily relish the challenge of meeting the requirements and be stimulated by the performing resources available. Novelty was obligatory. During rehearsals the orchestra members protested the first use of the bass clarinet, a recent invention by the Belgian Adolphe Sax. A horn trill toward the middle of the score is a reminder that valves were relatively recent addition to that instrument.

The ability to hear and see complete and uncut versions of Donizetti's operas is a relatively recent phenomenon. Editions in the 1950s and 60s were slimmed down to focus attention on the core story line-usually equivalent to most of the soprano heroine's music-with other roles incomplete. Although this performance was billed as a complete, Maestro Gatti indicated that here and there he excised repeats, so in fact this was a missed opportunity to discover the exquisitely rational architecture and balance in the Donizetti original.

Dom Sébastien begins with the title character, a military victor, being crowned king to great pageantry created by Director Pier Luigi Pizzi. Partway through the ceremony replete with real incense that wafted out into the house, Sébastien sees Arab woman Zayda in chains being led through the streets. In a prescient act of clemency, he pardons her. Another fateful encounter comes when he meets the poet Le Camoëns, an independent thinker in that age of conformity and also an admirer of the new king. Preparations are made for an invasion of North Africa with the aim of capturing all territories to Palestine. The historical Dom Sébastien dies in his foolhardy attempt, but in the Scribe libretto he survives through the efforts of Zayda. Without revealing his identity or that they have fallen in love, she obtains his release and safe conduct partly because Arab elder Ben-Selim believes the king has been killed. Zayda is now given to the victorious military Abayaldos as a reward. Back in Portugal Dom Sébastien, thought dead, again meets Camoëns, who encourages him to claim is rightful position usurped by uncle Don Antonio. Although recognized by Inquisition head Dom Juan and also by Abayaldos, new ambassador to Lisbon, and his wife Zayda, Sébastien is imprisoned as an imposter. Dom Juan has been conspiring all along to pass sovereignty of Portugal to the Spanish to gain advantages for the church. At the trial, Sébastien is condemned to death despite the pleadings of Zayda, cruelly rejected by Abayaldos. Dom Juan convinces Zayda to have Sébastien sign a document of abdication and cede control to Phillip II in exchange for his release. Camoëns enters ready to spirit both out of the prison, but he and the couple are shot to death as the Spanish fleet enters the harbor. (Among the unseen company is the Duca d'Alba, thus making the story dovetail nicely with another Donizetti opera, not to speak of Verdi.)

As can be gathered from the lengthy summary above, Scribe has provided the maximum number of opportunities for dramatic scenes with chorus in addition to numerous ensembles and solos. The obligatory ballet comes at the prescribed place at the beginning of Act II as an entertainment for the lovesick Zayda. Musical highlights functioning as show-stoppers rather than integral parts of the action include Camoëns's Act III "O Lisbonne" and last act barcarole and Sébastien's "Seul sur la terre" which closes Act II in a brilliantly unconventional way much appreciated by Berlioz. A dramatic scena between Zayda and Abayaldos was well received at this performance because the singers gave it their all. Donizetti shows himself as master craftsman, capable of transforming the stylistic challenges of the Opéra and the Scribe libretto into attractive music while fortifying his reputation as master melodist.

The lone female soloist, Bulgarian Enkelejda Shkosa revealed a rich-colored mezzo of substantial size but also capable of great delicacy in the role of Zayda. Her Elisabetta (Maria Stuarda) later this season should prove equally revelatory. Best among the men was Danilo Rigosa as the Inquisitor Juam De Sylva. A hefty headdress hampered Massimiliano Gagliardo's Abayaldos; his constant gesturing while singing served to compensate for a rather small voice. Giuseppe Filianoti (Dom Sébastien) used too robust an approach for his essentially lyric instrument, uncomfortably forcing out his high notes so they seemed detached from the rest of his voice. (He thus reproduced the kinds of muscular sounds made by the role's creator Duprez that were so criticized by audiences of the 1830s and 40s.) Carmelo Corrado Caruso did not vocally fill out the key role of Le Camoëns. Accompanied by breathless commentary, the RAI broadcast the previous day included an excellent Giuseppe Sabbatini, who masterfully shaded "Seul sur le terre" and a well-sung Abayaldos (Nicholas Rivenq). Enrico Cossutta had the right look if not the voice for Dom Antonio, the imposter king. The chorus, which reached for notes at the 11/29 opening, sounded more rested at this second performance. Sonia Ganassi might have been effective onstage for the previous day's opening, but the color of her voice is far too light for the role of Zayda.

Lasting a healthy twenty-three minutes, the Act II ballet sequence by Gheorghe Iancu in some fashion reproduced what might have been seen during the mid-nineteenth century, generously creating a light version of the opera's plot. Mr. Iancu as Arab leader in lemon yellow head wrap and loose pants squared off against Roberto Bolle's ultimately victorious Iberian warrior in a tight-fitting black costume. With loose long hair, Ms. Fracci sported a long red skirt while her harem girls wore the equivalent of one-piece bathing suits that gave them the appearance of little paunches, vestigial capes not withstanding. Just as in the roughly contemporary ballet Giselle, lifts were few and the combinations done mostly on demi-pointe emphasized port-de-bras and petit pas, Ms. Fracci's specialties. Ms. Fracci was absolutely exquisite; her many fans in attendance offered her a long ovation and many bouquets. Mr. Iancu did not evidence much stage presence, while Roberto Bolle's lazy spotting on turns was not what would be expected from a dancer of his stature although he made a dashing figure on stage. Conductor Gatti was outstanding in the ballet section, no mean feat. Elsewhere he was solemn or fluidly lyric but never built ensembles and act closings to best effect.

Designer Pizzi used a rectangular playing area to effectively mass the onstage forces with steps leading up to it on three sides. Behind this area further, steeper steps led up to a narrow walkway. Mr. Pizzi used more specificity that is his norm to create an anachronistic Baroque screen, which transformed into a church interior. A Ghibertian frame at the rear variously contained stylized seascapes or cloud patterns. Predictably the European men were inperiod costumes, all black of course; Zayda was in a simple cream dress while the scimitar-wielding moors had orientalizing garb. All too often Pizzi had the singers draped against the downstage steps while delivering major solos, a most anti-theatrical choice. Luigi Saccomandi had Dom Sébastien sing his famous romanza in semi-darkness; the choral scenes were appropriately lit even though more variety would have been welcome. Dim downstage lighting inhibited the singers from advancing forward, which would have created greater theatrical realism.

With the same double cast this production moved to Bologna's Teatro Comunale to open the season.

David Lipfert

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