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 Interview, Sir Mark Elder on Donizetti's L’Ange de Nisida

Sir Mark ElderComposed for the Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris in the late 1830s, Donizetti’s opera semiseria L’Ange de Nisida had to wait almost two centuries for its premiere – when the theatre closed due to bankruptcy shortly before the first scheduled performance, the composer opted to recycle much of the music for La favorite rather than attempting to mount the piece elsewhere as it stood, and it was only last year that the work was heard in its original incarnation following years of extensive collation and reconstruction by musicologists.

The live recording of the work’s belated premiere at Covent Garden last summer will be released on Opera Rara tomorrow, with Sir Mark Elder conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and Joyce El-Khoury (who recently brought the heroine of Liszt’s Sardanapalo to life for the first time) in the title-role. I spoke to Sir Mark earlier this month about the opera’s genesis and its convoluted path to the stage, its place within Donizetti’s French oeuvre, and Opera Rara’s next project…

Bearing in mind the various borrowings and recyclings associated with this score, how much of the music was heard for the first time last June?

A great deal: over half the piece had never been heard before. There were also numerous short passages (usually recitatives) and details in the orchestration which Donizetti hadn’t completed before the theatre where it was going to be put on closed, so we had to provide those ourselves, and I have my lovely colleague Martin Fitzpatrick (Head of Music at ENO) to thank for that.

Do you think that so much of the music was already familiar to audiences through La favorite played a role in its neglect, or is the explanation more prosaic?

What’s interesting about this whole story is that La favorite became a very successful piece in France, in an Italian translation and (in my view) with the story substantially weakened: there were parts of the opera that were famous right until the end of the nineteenth century. But I think L’Ange remained unknown for so long simply because nobody had got round to reconstructing it until now – it was rather like a novel where you know the basis of the story but don’t know in what order the chapters should be! That work was undertaken by the young musicologist Candida Mantica, who showed an enormous amount of sustained effort and determination in putting the score together: by using the originally-printed libretto, she gradually tracked down the corresponding pieces of music and was able to place them in the whole trajectory of the L’Ange de Nisida score. This process took several years, so it’s a real labour of love that’s been achieved, and I’ve come to the realisation (as have many others, I think) that a lot of the pieces of music that bel canto lovers have long enjoyed in La favorite actually serve a much better purpose in their original placing.

You mentioned the closure of the rather short-lived Théâtre de la Renaissance, which was associated with writers including Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas rather than being exclusively an opera-house – do you think that the venue afforded greater artistic freedom than was available at the Paris Opera?

My take on this is that the Théâtre de la Renaissance was not as grand as what we now call the Paris Opera (but what they then called the Académie Royale de Musique), so Donizetti had the chance to do something more intimate. And this little story (slightly confusing though it is when you go through it for the first time) actually works best at a very personal level – it’s not in any sense a grand opera. The presence of Don Gaspar (sung on the recording by Laurent Naouri) gives it a witty, cynical, lively humour as well, which had to be excised entirely before it could be played as La favorite in the grand theatre.

What each theatre was allowed to perform at that time was decreed by Napoleon: he stipulated that there should be no dialogue in performances at the Académie Royale and that there should always be a ballet included in these operas, and these are traditions that we’ve laboured with ever since. (Think, for instance, of Wagner wanting to do his Tannhäuser in Paris but having to include a ballet at some point because of Napoleon’s dictum). This theatre had just opened with a play by Hugo, and well into the twentieth century it was common for smallish, more localised theatres to present both musical dramas and plays. They had an orchestra on tap if you wanted it for ‘straight’ theatre pieces, which is why Mendelssohn composed his incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Grieg the music for Peer Gynt.

Do you have any theories as to why Donizetti didn’t go on and simply mount the opera elsewhere after the Théâtre de la Renaissance closed?

There is a letter in which he says: ‘I’ve lost another opera. I can’t just take it as it is to the Académie Royale because they will want something bigger-scale, with a ballet, and I'd have to completely rewrite it if that’s where I want it to go.’ Now one should remember that by this time, when Donizetti had settled in Paris, he was already experiencing extraordinary commercial success - much to the chagrin of some of his French contemporaries like Berlioz. And he was able to write different pieces in different styles with incredible brilliance: L’Ange de Nisida is not a comic opera, but its next-door-neighbour La fille du régiment absolutely is; Lucie de Lammermoor [which premiered at the Théâtre de la Renaissance] is a grand melodrama, but he turned that into a success that could be performed all over the French countryside, in French. (It was also a great triumph for the soprano who did the title-role, and indeed she was going to sing the lead in L’Ange de Nisida). So he was very skilful at cutting his coat according to his cloth, and though we don’t know so much about the repertoire of the Théâtre de la Renaissance L’Ange was clearly tailored towards what he thought would be a success in those surroundings. But ultimately that meant that he was left with a score which he couldn't take to the Opéra Comique because it didn’t have dialogue, and couldn’t take to the Académie Royale because it wasn’t grand enough...

The piece was composed at around the same time as the last two Donizetti operas you’ve recorded for Opera Rara, Le duc d’Albe and Les martyrs – do you see any similar ideas at play?

My plan some years ago was to try and make good editions (and good recordings) of all the operas that Donizetti wrote in the last twelve years of his life for Paris. There was so much music from this period that wasn’t known, but we knew in principle that he had to adapt his compositional style to appeal to the Parisian public, and that style was not by any means the same as what he was used to writing in Naples and the rest of Northern Italy. The French had different priorities: rather than being impressed with vocal acrobatics, what they admired was the narrative being cogently pressed forward and the music portraying the emotions as powerfully as possible. That’s why he worked so hard at adapting Les martyrs from Poliuto, to make sure it didn’t offend the Parisians – that was his aim, and by the end of his career he was doing it very skilfully. We see from his manuscripts how he gradually learned to set the French language: in my opinion there are some very gauche settings in both La favorite and L’Ange de Nisida which need a little bit of finessing, but my memory of doing the later opera Dom Sébastien is that by then he was far more accomplished.

Can you point to two or three passages where Donizetti is at his most inventive in this score?

What a lovely invitation. I’m going to pick two passages from the second act – the opening of which is when we realise the extent of the relationship between this king and this young woman Sylvia de Linarès. They have a scene together of some intimacy during which we see that he adores her and wants her for his mistress even though he has a wife in the court of Naples; there’s tension between the two of them, but the duet has a great structure, is very inventive and brilliant to sing, yet is also dramatically true. When things start getting complex at the end of the act, there’s a wonderful quartet for the leading singers which voices everybody’s consternation and anxiety about the situation. The voices sing rising three-note phrases, delicately accompanied by the orchestra, and gradually all four characters join in – it’s a very beautiful piece of music with masterly dramatic timing, but not in any way histrionic.

What can you tell me about your future plans with Opera Rara?

We’re hoping that in June we will unveil another wonderfully inventive, completely different Donizetti opera that will show a side of his genius in a way that will really surprise people, and the plan is to record it in May and do a concert at the Barbican in June. This is a work called Il Paria, which is the only opera that we’ve ever come across from the beginning of the nineteenth century that’s set in India – it dates from a year after Beethoven’s death, about the time that Berlioz was writing his Symphonie fantastique. It’s so inventive and beautiful and special, but it bombed at its first performance: it was written for the Naples company and premiered in the presence of the king and queen, and in many respects it was very perplexing for the audience. It’s really about religious tolerance, and the absolute lack of tolerance in one of the four lead roles is incredibly strongly delivered. There was a caste in traditional Indian religion which they called ‘the undesirables’ (that’s how we got the word ‘pariah’ in our language, from the Indian), and it’s set in and around a Brahmin temple in Benares in the middle of the northern part of India, on the Ganges.

The astonishing confrontation - romantically, humanly, professionally – between two pariahs and this high priest and his daughter is fascinating. It’s not as traditionally bel canto as something like Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra or any of those brilliant virtuoso pieces that we now associate with Donizetti – but it needs fantastically beautiful singing, and all I can say is that I think it’s an absolute masterpiece. It has very few numbers, but each one is very substantial; it’s a relatively short work, in just two acts. There’s an astonishing tenor role which was composed for Rubini, and the title-role is a baritone part written for Luigi Lablache (so more what we’d call a bass-baritone today), and the third male role is this absolutely ruthless high priest – like Ramfis in Aida, he won’t budge an inch. And the tenor is in love with his daughter, so of course it all goes wrong…

Joyce El-Khoury, David Junghoon Kim, Laurent Naouri, Vito Priante, Evgeny Stavinsky; Royal Opera Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Sir Mark Elder

L’Ange de Nisida is released on Opera Rara tomorrow.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC