> Opera and Oratorio
El-Khoury, Roberts; R. Thomas, Hoare, N. Alaimo, Miles; BBC Singers and
Symphony, Elder. Libretto and translation. Opera Rara ORC48 (2)
Donizetti prepared his "tragedia lirica" Belisario for his 1836 return to Venice, where his stage career had begun in 1818. Based on a Byzantine subject with Oedipal echoes — treated somewhat clumsily in Salvatore Cammarano's libretto — the opera succeeded. The score strikes one today as of uneven quality, but it contains passages of considerable power and interest, as do virtually all of this once routinely denigrated composer's later works. One composer who evidently thought so was Verdi; again and again, later Verdian treasures are prefigured in Donizetti's musical grammar, both vocally and instrumentally. Several key scenes, including tender father–son (Act I) and father–daughter (Act II) duets, point to a future trend in Italian opera. As with some middle-period Verdi operas, Belisario's three parts sport descriptive titles — "Il Trionfo," "L'Esilio" and "La Morte." Flavius Belisarius was a renowned sixth-century general; the story here — of his betrayal by his wife, Antonina, his vindictive blinding and incredible subsequent Empire-saving victory over the Bulgars — is ahistorical.
Mark Elder shapes and leads a satisfying orchestral and choral performance. Nicola Alaimo, who joined the Met this year as Falstaff and Belcore, makes a fine, involving hero. If one were to compare Alaimo with his famous competition on available live recordings of Belisario, he is more on the lyrical, line-based order of Renato Bruson than that of the bluff if impassioned Giuseppe Taddei. The remarkable Caroline Unger, who created Beethoven's mezzo parts in the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony, along with several bel canto roles, also created Donizetti's Antonina, a demanding part. Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury operates on a narrower format than did Leyla Gencer, the best-known Antonina of the late-twentieth-century Donizetti revival. But El-Khoury, though lacking a satisfactory trill, offeres a sound that is vibrant and incisive, if not always dulcet, and the ability to forge a potent characterization.
As Irene, the loyal daughter who guides the blinded Belisario, Camilla Roberts takes a while to warm up; her florid technique is decent rather than outstanding, and at full volume her soprano loses some of its attraction. But she's very pleasing in that extended duet with Alaimo. Russell Thomas, a tenor of growing verbal and musical sensitivity and increasing international reputation, sounds splendid as the warrior Alamiro (Belisario's long-lost son, whose abandonment was a factor in the Emperor's turning on him). For a working definition of the term "unitalianate," listen to the timbre of Peter Hoare as Eutropio, the ambitious bad guy conspiring (and infatuated) with Antonina; his singing is at least clean. The more sonorous but less steady bass of Alastair Miles — a regular feature of Opera Rara's recordings — limns the Emperor Justinian.
Opera Rara always presents an impressive booklet; perhaps some expense could be diverted to the discs' packaging, as — invariably in my experience of the label — it begins disintegrating at first use. Still and all, this Belisario is an impressive achievement.
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