The reputation of Donizetti’s last opera, Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal, has always been negative. Rumour has it that it is nothing more than ‘a funeral in five acts’. And for some reason, writers have always tried to cite the onset of the composer’s mental illness, caused by syphilis, to explain the opera’s sombre mood. Yet is it likely after twenty years of writing some of the greatest works in the repertoire that Donizetti could produce a score devoid of interest?
He spent more time over the composition of Dom Sébastien than any other opera in his career, and by actively using the best traditions of both his native Italian opera and the Paris theatre for which he wrote the work, he created a near-masterpiece.
The contraction of the drama was his greatest concern, and though the final scene is too quick to make sense, the remainder of the piece moved at a terrific pace, suggesting that a staged revival is worthwhile. The rousing choruses of Act I, the charming ballet of Act II, and the incredible ‘fake’ funeral complete with offstage effects of Act III, add up to a tremendously power opera, and one which just keeps getting better.
In fact, the fight for power, the clash of cultures and religions and the background presence of the Spanish Inquisition are aspects which the work shares with Verdi’s most powerful opera, Don Carlos (also written for the Paris Opera, incidentally).
It would be difficult to think of a more persuasive rendition of Dom Sébastien than this concert performance, which opened the Royal Opera’s new season in style, even if one or two of the soloists could have been better.
As usual, Mark Elder made the evening a musical joy, leading a focussed, well-balanced and energetic reading of the score, with the ROH chorus and orchestra in top form despite the odd dropped brass note. Some conductors concentrate on technical refinement, some emphasise atmosphere, but the sometimes underrated Elder brings the best sound out of the musicians while inspiring them to the highest gear of excitement and enthusiasm.
He was matched by the ever-wonderful Simon Keenlyside as Abayaldos, a Moorish chieftain. Keenlyside’s intensity and dedication are always a marvel, and his entrance showed the voice in powerful form as he called his Moroccan troops to battle against the Portuguese led by Dom Sébastien. At one point, Keenlyside seemed to be suffering from a cold, but he carried on valiantly and gave the most satisfying vocal performance of the evening.
Illness had already struck down the veteran Renato Bruson, a throat infection causing him to withdraw from the performances. This was disappointing, and his replacement, Carmelo Corrado Caruso, was too woolly a singer for such an important role as Camoens, the King’s loyal supporter. He was emotionally engaged in his task, and was genuinely moving in his Act II aria O Lisbonne, O ma patrie!, but one missed the incision of the greatest Italian baritones.
Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti sang beautifully in the title role, but it lies a little high for him, causing some cracked notes. Similarly, Vesselina Kasarova had only partial success as Zayda, the voice lying too far back in the throat for Donizetti’s lavish and inventive orchestration. Yet they were both committed and enjoyable, as were Alastair Miles (Dom Juam), John Upperton (Dom Antonio/First Inquisitor) and the excellent new Young Artist Robert Gleadow (a real find for the company).
Recorded by Opera Rara for CD release in February 2007, the authority of Elder’s reading and the overall commitment of all concerned made this an enjoyable performance, well worth catching in its one remaining performance on Tuesday. Who’d have thought a funeral could be this much fun?