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DONIZETTI: La Favorita

spacer Vitali Marini; Sardelli, Silveri, Colella; Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Rucci.View Video 2413, black and white, 90 mins., no subtitles

Video Favorita Cover 912

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s, a teenage opera-lover could find entertainment even on a Sunday night when the Met was dark. Sundays were, in fact, particularly operatic: the radio offered two “Sunday Night at the Opera” sorts of shows, with complete opera LPs being spun on WQXR and WVNJ (from New Jersey). Also, on one of the local TV channels, wonderfully creaky old opera films would appear — cut versions of the works with voice-over narration instead of subtitles. Some roles were enacted by singers, others by lip-synching actors. Even if the films were only ten or fifteen years old, they had an aura of the antique about them. View Video’s La Cenerentola (1948) and La Favorita (1952) are two such items. 

Each film offers a little less than two thirds of the score; they could justifiably be called “Chunks of Cenerentola” and “Fragments of Favorita.” As an operatic experience on film, the Cenerentola probably works better. Rossini’s fairy tale, with its undercurrent of darkness, is given some spectacular visual settings and boasts the added interest of the young Fedora Barbieri — or at least her voice — in the title role. The part is nicely acted by the attractive Lori Landi. Even in 1948 vocal form, Barbieri cannot compete with florid mezzos specializing in this repertoire today, but she does offer quite respectable agility and a natural sense of style. Her runs are generally clean, sparkle where they should and are delivered with spirit and a sense of vocal abandon. She is particularly winning in her Act I duet with Ramiro (Gino Del Signore), displaying an uncharacteristic delicacy of delivery. She’s also captivating at the opening of the ensuing quintet, “Signor, una parola,” as she begs to be allowed to go to the ball. In the famous rondo finale, “Nacqui all’affanno,” the mezzo is spared some of the vocal hurdles Rossini supplied toward the end, thanks to a slice that removes more than half of them.

The rest of the cast is quite good. Afro Poli delivers Dandini’s “Come un’ ape” with a firm legato that extends to his coloratura. Gino Del Signore’s Ramiro loses the bulk of his music but displays elegance and an attractive lyric timbre. As Don Magnifico, Vito De Taranto makes the most of what remains of his role, mining both Magnifico’s malevolence and his buffoonery. Oliviero de Fabritiis conducts a musically serious performance despite the truncated edition. The narration is somewhat intrusive and can be confusing. Nonetheless, the film, shot in several Italian palaces and costumed richly, is fun to watch. 

The Favorita DVD features Sophia Loren on the cover as a drawing card. Still quite young (about eighteen), and billed as Sofia Lazzaro, she looks beautiful and gives an understated, dignified acting performance as Leonora, mistress to the king. Gino Sinimberghi, a distinguished tenor in his own right, acts the role of her beloved Fernando, while the singing is done by Piero Sardelli. Fernando’s two arias are included, shorn of recitatives, but the narrator inexplicably speaks over the climax of “Una vergine, un angiol di Dio,” covering a cadenza that features a high C-sharp. Sardelli’s tone is not intrinsically beautiful, but “Spirto gentil” is delivered fervidly, and with a solid high C. 

The most distinguished vocal performance comes from Paolo Silveri as the king, Alfonso, his “Vien, Leonora” elegantly dispatched. As Baldassare, Alfredo Colella contributes an impressive bass voice and authority, while Gasparo, acted with marvelous silent-film-style villainy by Giorgio Costantini, is vocalized by Mino Russo. Leonora’s lady-in-waiting Ines (beautiful Franca Tamantini onscreen) is sung by Miriam Di Giove, whose over-bright vocalism reflects a kind of production that was popular at the time in Italy for light-lyric sopranos. (Think Eugenia Ratti.) 

The title role of Leonora is severely cut — even in her big scena, “O mio Fernando,” both the recitative and the entire cabaletta are absent! The vocal side of the portrayal falls to Palmira Vitali Marini, who sings with ample passion but with flabby tone that lets the music down. Although the eighteen-year-old Loren-to-be is visually alluring, there’s no vocal Leonora at the center of the opera.

Much vocal music is missing, but a large chunk of the ballet is there (performed by the Rome Opera Ballet), with some of the silliest choreography imaginable. The visual aspect of the film includes many outdoor shots and battle scenes with plenty of horses carrying soldiers galloping in the direction of the camera. It all lends atmosphere, as does the skillful depiction of the court intrigue that frames the plot. spacer 


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