Belisario (Review)

15 Jan 2015

Belisario - Another terrific release from the ever-enterprising Opera Rara label

 

And still they come, the revelatory releases of operatic gems uncovered by Britain's valiant Opera Rara label, now operating without the financial safety net of the Peter Moores Foundation as their former core funder.

 

Hard on the heels of Donizetti's Caterina Cornaro, released in April this year to international acclaim, we now have the same composer's superb Belisario, with Sir Mark Elder, one of today's great conductors, on top form at the helm of a powerhouse cast, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers in fine fettle.

 

A benchmark product of vintage Donizetti, Belisario was first performed in 1836 - a year after the premieres of Maria Stuarda in Milan and Lucia di Lammermoor in Naples. It triumphed on the world's lyric stages throughout the 19th century, before suffering the eclipse that beleaguered most of the composer's extensive oeuvre.

 

That was before the Bel Canto renaissance got underway in the second half of the last century, propelled by superstar champions such as Callas, Sutherland, Caballé - and not least, the Turkish diva, Leyla Gencer, who made something of a speciality of rarities such as Belisario in the late 1960's and early 70's.

 

Set to a tautly-constructed melodrama by Donizetti's preferred librettist, the Neapolitan poet and playwright Salvatore Commarano, Belisario exudes some of the plot elements of a Shakespearean tragedy. The opera's protagonist, a victorious Roman general, is betrayed by his scheming wife Antonina, who erroneously believes he is responsible for the supposed demise of their son. Blinded, Belisario is despatched into exile with his faithful daughter Irene, before being reunited with his long-lost son, whose death was ordered but not implemented by Belisario after a prophetic dream. Wounded in battle, Belisario dies while his wife begs his forgiveness as the curtain comes down.

 

While Belisario has no central love interest, it is certainly not short of dramatic ingredients to fuel the composer's score with white hot inspiration. A notable example of this is the highly-charged duet (CD 1, tracks 9 - 11) between Belisario and the prisoner-of-war Alamiro, who turns out to be his far-from-dead son. Another stand-out moment in the score is the thrilling Sextet (reminiscent of its more famous counterpart in Lucia di Lammermoor) that brings the first part of the opera to a close (CD 1, tracks 16 - 19).

 

Also of note are virtually all the arias. Sample a section online of Antonina's Act 1 cavatina, Sin la tomba, gloriously sung by the young Canadian spinto soprano, Joyce El-Khoury, who crowns her cabaletta, O desio della vendetta, with a thrilling top D (CD 1, tracks 5 - 7). Likewise the soprano leaves nothing to be desired in her visceral rendering of the opera's magnificent final scene. Clearly this young lady is destined for a great career.

 

Sicilian baritone Nicola Alaimo is commanding in the heroic moments of the title role. He is also deeply affecting in his scenes with his offspring, Irene (touchingly sung by Camilla Roberts) and Alamiro. In the latter role, the sweet-toned American lyric tenor, Russell Thomas, evoking shades of the great Alfredo Kraus, adds further lustre to this exceptional recording.

 

In common with other recent Opera Rara releases, this new two-CD set is handsomely presented in a stylishly designed slip-case with a lavish booklet containing a scholarly essay by Jeremy Commons, along with a synopsis and the Italian libretto accompanied by an English translation.

 

Belisario makes the ideal gift for the most jaded of opera-lovers in search of fresh discoveries - aside from tempting hedonists such myself to indulge in hours of blissful listening.

 

REVIEW BY WILLIAM CHARLTON-PERKINS, 3 DECEMBER 2013

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