A Fine French Performance of La favorite

Review by: Robert Levine

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Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

Stuffed peacocks, mirrored floors strewn with flower petals, mirrored walls that alter perspective, background arches that can serve as either monastic or regal, the inevitable modern chairs (sets by Vincent Lemaire), and a blaze of colors in both costumes (by Christian Lacroix) and lighting (by Guido Levi) keep this production of Donizetti’s 1840 La favorite–complete and in the original French, and directed ordinarily by Vincent Broussard–interesting to look at. In fact, it is all so visually beautiful, and so frequently changes hue, that the rather hand-to-heart, falling-to-the-knees behavior of the soloists does not seem such a bore. Given the look, it’s not clear exactly during what era this story is supposed to unfold–but who cares? It looks great and works on its own terms.

Broussard has the rainbow-dressed, frilly courtiers move at a snail’s pace, which adds a nice creepiness to the proceedings, and Alphonse’s clear refusal to cringe at the priest Balthazar’s warning and malediction near the end of Act 2 (Act 1 in this production) by kissing Léonor brutally until they’re both on the ground is very effective. Precisely why, in the last act, Fernand has a modern suitcase that glows gold in the dark is anyone’s guess–as is Léonor’s last-act costume, which, though indescribable, makes her look like a poorly wrapped gift. She doesn’t die at the end, by the way; she merely walks backward through the arches and fades into the distance. Meaning?

The sincerity of the cast and the singing make up for any eccentricities or deficiencies in the direction or production. As Léonor, mezzo Kate Aldrich is wonderful, throwing herself into the role of the misused “favorite” of the King with gusto, singing with warm but exciting tone. The voice is even throughout, and after a couple of moments of wavering pitch early on, her big Act 3 aria is the showpiece it should be, and her final-act duet with Fernand is deeply moving.

Chinese tenor Yijie Shi, having learned the role in a few weeks when the designated tenor cancelled, is remarkable. He looks anywhere between 15 and 20 years of age, but the voice is splendid–ringing, pure, easily produced, used with nuance and superb attention to the text. His high notes are true and fearless. He acts as well as he can–he looks genuinely horrified and bruised, not to mention confused, a good deal of the time–and it would be wonderful if his career continued healthily on this path: he had been singing mostly Rossini prior to this engagement, and Fernand is not a light role. (Aldrich was a substitute for the tedious Sophie Koch, so we win all around.)

Ludovic Tézier is a splendid Alphonse–nasty, selfish, and singing with big, rounded tone. As Balthazar, the priest who supposedly gives comfort and threatens damnation almost simultaneously, Giovanni Furlanetto doesn’t quite have the voice–the tone itself lacks authority and he lacks the sepulchral low notes required for the part. The others in the cast are excellent.
Chorus and orchestra sing and play wonderfully for Antonello Allemandi, who, while clearly knowing the score, occasionally allows the niceties in late-Donizetti to go by unspotted in favor of a razzmatazz reading. It’s exciting, however, and few will complain.

The only competition on video is a 1953 film starring Sophia Loren (I don’t know who does the singing, but I also don’t care) and a “private” 1971 production from Japan, in Italian, somewhat cut and visually murky, starring a blazing Fiorenza Cossotto and Alfredo Kraus, which is in a different category, really. It’s a good thing this new DVD is as good as it is–it fills a gap. The only bonus is a cast gallery and the booklet lacks track listings and timings. Subtitles are in European languages and Korean, Chinese, and Japanese.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one

  • Kate Aldrich (mezzo-soprano), Yijie Shi (tenor), Ludovic Tézier (baritone), Giovanni Furlanetto (bass)
  • Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, Choeur Capitole de Toulouse, Antonello Allemandi


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