OPERA NEWS - La Favorite
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La Favorite

Bavarian State Opera

In Review Munich Favorite hdl 117
Garanča and Polenzani in La Favorite in Munich
© Wilfried Hösl

LA FAVORITE, given its premiere in 1840 at the Salle le Peletier in Paris, was composed in some haste after Donizetti was required to restructure the opera to provide an important role for prima donna Rosina Stoltz, the mistress of Léon Pillet, director of the opera. Nevertheless, in LaFavorite, Donizetti reached a new level of perfection—particularly in Acts I and IV—in orchestration, melodic inspiration and the marriage of music with text. (La Favorite is infinitely superior to La Favorita, the inaccurate, trivialized Italian adaptation of the opera that steadfastly remained in repertoire for more than a century.)

Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production at Munich’s Nationaltheater (seen Oct. 23), sung in the original French, was graced with extraordinarily good singing. In the title role, Elı¯na Garancˇa not only looked stunning but sang with admirable fullness of tone, soaring over orchestra and chorus in the ensembles (particularly the Act II finale); her exemplary evenness of registers allowed her to manage both high-lying and low-lying notes with ease. She likewise plumbed the emotional depths of the hopelessly trapped Léonor, the mistress of the King of Castile. 

Tenor Matthew Polenzani was an exquisite Fernand, skillfully mixing Italianate tone with French style, showing a robust upper register in “Ange si pur” but tempering phrases above the staff with effective use of voix mixte, not to cover up any vocal deficiencies but to fit voice to line. Finnish bass Mika Kares was the most impressive of all as Balthazar, his dark, agile, seemingly indestructible voice adding depth of feeling to his dealing with his monks and Fernand, as well as putting the fear of God into those who truly deserved to be reprimanded. 

Less incisive than his colleagues, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien sang with a suave and sensual but at times somewhat pressed voice as Alphonse XI, King of Castile. Tenor Joshua Owen Mills, as Don Gaspard, and mezzo-soprano Elsa Benoit, as Inès, can both be counted as true discoveries with superb stage presence. The chorus of the Bavarian State Opera, prepared by Sören Eckhoff, sang immaculately and was very moving in Act IV. Conductor Karel Mark Chichon took the score very seriously indeed, giving equally understanding attention to his cast of principals and to the Bavarian State Orchestra, which played with well-blended sound and great virtuosity.

Stage director Amélie Niermeyer, known for work in the legitimate theater, has obviously taken La Favorite to heart—particularly the psychological and physical abuse of the title character, Léonor. She has turned Alphonse XI into an absurd mixture of infantile petulance and abject stupidity. In this interpretation, the king uses Léonor as an object of his will, without even a sliver of affection, which weakens the story. Niermeyer has little evident affinity with the monks, making them into automatons of ritual repetition, controlled by a rather cold Balthazar. 

The costumes, by Kirsten Dephoff, are modern-dress. The sets, by Alexander Müller-Elmau, consist of movable panels at the side and rear of the stage that can be transparent, revealing—with fascinating lighting by Michael Bauer—the Monastery of St. James of Compostela or the Alcazar. Statues of female martyrs and even the crucified Christ at times come to life. The appearance of the living, bleeding Christ during the denunciation of Léonor was certainly effective; much of the rest was pure kitsch.  —Jeffrey A. Leipsic 

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