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Clémentine Margaine, a Favourite “Favourite”

Gran Teatre del Liceu
07/08/2018 -  & July 10, 11, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 2018
Gaetano Donizetti: La Favorite
Clémentine Margaine*/Eve-Maud Hubeaux/Daniela Barcellona (Léonor de Guzman), Michael Spyres*/Stephen Costello (Fernand), Markus Werba*/Mattia Olivieri (Alphonse XI), Ante Jerkunica (Balthazar), Miren Urbieta-Vega (Ines), Roger Padullés (Gaspar)
Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Conxita Garcia (chorus master), Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Patrick Summers (conductor)
Derek Gimpel (stage director), Jean-Pierre Vergier (costumes), Dominique Borrini (lights)

M. Spyres, C. Margaine (© Bofill)

In front of the Teatro Liceu, post performance, I overheard a conversation between four young people about the opera they’d just seen. They were puzzled about the opera’s plot: what was the reason for Fernand’s outrage? What was so horrible that he had to renounce his beloved Léonor, as well as the title and honours the King of Castille had given him? Wasn’t Léonor a woman of noble birth? Did the King plan to continue keeping her as his mistress? If so, how could Fernand know? Indeed, the plot of La Favorite is hard for contemporary audiences to understand. In our time, being the king’s mistress might be something to be proud of.

More implausible than the repercussions of Léonor’s lost honour is the premise of the humble monk Fernand being attracted to a noblewoman, and that Léonor would have been attracted to him. The true story of Léonor or Eleanor de Guzmán (1310-1351) is even more “operatic” than the plot of Donizetti’s opera. Widowed at the age of twenty, the beautiful noblewoman was indeed the mistress of the King of Castille, Alfonso XI, until his death in 1350. Throughout their long affair, the court and the Church were scandalized by the King’s shunning of his legitimate Queen and his unapologetic public preference for his mistress. His revengeful widow, Queen Maria, daughter of the King of Portugal, had Léonor murdered. But that was not to be the end, as posthumously, as Henry, one of her ten illegitimate children with Alfonso XI, became King Henry II (1334-1379).

Though its Paris premiere in 1840 was a success, La Favorite did not enjoy an enduring success thereafter. Its 1842 Italian production gained some popularity throughout the twentieth century in Spain and Italy, and as a vehicle for mezzo-sopranos, such as Ebe Stignani, Giulietta Simionato, Fiorenza Cossotto and Shirley Verrett. There is even a 1953 Italian film of the opera where Sophia Loren mimics the role of Leonora. American mezzo Dolora Zajick starred in this same Teatro Liceu production when it was first produced in 2002. Whereas nearly all productions of La Favorite in the twentieth century were modelled on the Italian version, the original French version is the one now widely produced. While Don Carlos and Les Vêpres siciliennes still tend to be given in their Italian adaptations, La Favorite seems to have joined the ranks of La Fille du regiment and Guillaume Tell, operas performed in the original French after years of being sung in Italian adaptations. The return to the French version is a definite improvement; the French plot is less muddled and in this production the role of Léonor is more effective in French. When sung in Italian by Verdi mezzos, they tend to overplay the role as a hybrid between Azucena, Amneris and Eboli. Indeed, the best thing about the Liceu’s revival is the French mezzo Clémentine Margaine.

Margaine does justice to the role with her subtle and refined style. Margaine’s voice is powerful and her diction impeccable. Her aria, “O mon Fernand, tous les biens de la terre,” was spectacular and its cabaletta “Mon arrêt descend du ciel” truly climatic without resorting to the usual excesses. Her leading man, American tenor Michael Spyres, was dramatically convincing as the novice Fernand. His voice is powerful, and its timbre beautiful. His French diction was also astonishingly good. His Act I aria “Un ange, une femme inconnue” was more accomplished than the Act IV “Ange si pur” where he had difficulty with the final high C. Austrian baritone Markus Werba was an appropriately devious King Alphonse XI. His Act II “Léonor, viens, j’abandonne” was both stylish and moving. However, despite his more than adequate singing, he wasn’t a sufficiently imposing presence in the Léonor-Fernand-Alphonse XI love triangle. Croatian bass Ante Jerkunica impressed as the monk Balthazar, with his deep basso and his convincingly menacing tone.

La Favorite was written for Paris as a “Grand Opéra,” a formula that demands about a half dozen superstars and a grandiose mise en scène. While the singers in this production were mostly outstanding, the sets and staging left a lot to be desired: opulence was the last thing the royal palace aspired to; the gardens of Alcazar were rather barren; and the St-James of Compostela monastery was a place of desolation rather than piety. Thankfully, Jean-Pierre Vergier’s colourful costumes gave life to the gloomy, mostly black sets. The show was unnecessarily long, as the complete ballet music had been restored, though without a ballet, as an interlude between acts. As it is the least inspired music of the opera, it should not have been revived, as blasphemous as this may sound. If championed by singers of the calibre of Clémentine Margaine, this infrequently performed Donizetti opera may deservedly become part of the repertoire. This may even open the door to revivals of other neglected works of Donizetti: Maria di Rohan (1843), Dom Sébastien, roi du Portugal (1843) and Caterina Cornaro (1844), all from the composer’s rich mature period.

Ossama el Naggar



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