Most operas that are rediscovered, having been thought lost, tend to come from the eighteenth century or earlier. There are exceptions to this rule, but still the act of attending a world premiere of a work by a leading nineteenth century Italian composer, because it was never performed at the time of writing, is not something we can normally do today.
We have, however, been able to do just that with Donizetti’s L’Ange de Nisida, with the fact that it remained unperformed in the composer’s lifetime providing quite an insight into how operas then could be planned, designed for particular theatres, and recycled. Donizetti was commissioned to write the piece by Anténor Joly, director of the newborn Théâtre de la Renaissance, who was hoping to maximise on the success of a production of Lucie de Lammermoor that the venue had hosted in August 1839. The autograph score, which incorporated some music from the composer’s unfinished opera Adelaide (drafted around 1834), was essentially complete by 27 December 1839, as annotated on its final page, and the production process soon commenced. However, the date of the premiere kept being postponed, and then in May 1840 the Théâtre de la Renaissance went bankrupt before L’Ange de Nisida could reach the stage.
Donizetti knew there was no chance of having the piece performed in Italy as it involved the King of Naples and his mistress, while other Parisian theatre’s repertoires had to conform to specific conventions. In the end, the composer reworked much of the score as La Favorite, but in the process he physically nested pages from L’Ange into it, while making changes to the poetry, vocal lines and orchestrations. At this point, the original score was lost and the task of piecing everything together from looking at La Favorite (where only a microfilm copy of the autograph score exists), and the pages of L’Ange that did not end up in that opera, fell to musicologist Candida Mantica, having received a commission from Opera Rara in 2014 to produce a complete performing edition. The overall process of reconstruction, however, lasted more than eight years and, at the outset, it was far from clear that the complete opera could be restored. However, with the additional aid of a working draft of the libretto for L’Ange de Nisida, presumably in Gustave Vaëz’ own hand, in the end only 75 bars of music had to be added (by Martin Fitzpatrick) to the 3,700 that make up its score.
The story is set in the Kingdom of Naples in 1470 on the island of Nisida. There, Sylvia, who is called the ‘angel of Nisida’ by the local populace for her charitable ways, is the mistress of the King, having been lured to Naples from Andalusia believing she would actually gain a husband. At the same time, she is also loved by Leone, a man who had to flee the court of Naples on pain of death for fighting a duel. She in turn admits her love for him, but says they can have no future, although she does secure Leone’s liberty from the King.
However, the Father Superior from the local monastery appears, brandishing a Papal Bull denouncing the King for ignoring the dictates of the Pope, and ordering Sylvia’s banishment. Don Gaspar, the King’s chamberlain, says that the Pope is only frightened that he may make Sylvia his Queen, and so devises a plan to overcome the problem. He asks Leone to escort a young woman to Naples where Don Gaspar will find her a husband. Leone, when he believes that the woman in question is Sylvia, actually agrees to be that husband. He has no idea, however, that she is the King’s mistress, while Sylvia, when she discovers what Leone has subscribed to, is appalled, thinking he is only doing it for the title that will be conferred on him in return.
When Leone discovers the truth, after the male courtiers berate him, he feels used and decides to renounce earthly passions and become a monk. Sylvia realises that his motives were noble and, disguised as a young novice, manages to see him in the monastery, but by this point she is extremely weak. Leone initially rejects her, but then allows his love to be rekindled and finally says that he wishes to relinquish his vows. By now, however, it is too late and Sylvia collapses and dies.
The exceptionally interesting score, in response to the subject matter, mixes the seriousness of, for example, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda or Roberto Devereux with the frivolity of L’elisir d’amore or La fille du régiment. The element that is most obviously responsible for the music dipping its toe into the latter camp is the character of Don Gaspar, who fancies himself as a fixer and thus boasts in the jolly ‘Ma puissance n’est pas mince’ of how he can right all wrongs. There are also jokes such as the character interrupting the crowd’s jubilant cries of ‘Vive le Roi!’ no less than three times in annoyance. Nevertheless, just as interesting is the way in which the final scene between Sylvia and Leone intersperses the most sensitive soul searching music with more bracing melodies, before rounding the experience off with monks’ chanting.
This concert performance, produced in association with Opera Rara and marking the world premiere performance of the work, saw the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, under the baton of Sir Mark Elder, occupy Covent Garden’s main stage. The orchestra was on top form, while there was not a single weak link among the soloists. As Sylvia, Joyce El-Khoury revealed beauty and a glistening quality within her extremely precise and impeccably controlled soprano, making her Act III performance of ‘Ô mon amour perdu’, the hardest aria to reconstruct for a variety of reasons, something special. David Junghoon Kim revealed a brilliantly expansive tenor that proved perfectly suited to executing Leone’s soaring lines, while Vito Priante as the King revealed a broad baritone that combined warmth with a slightly darker edge. As Don Gaspar, Laurent Naouri’s bass-baritone had a sense of ease that enabled him to complement his excellent sound with strong comic delivery, while Evgeny Stavinsky stood out in the small role of the Father Superior by virtue of the incredible power that he brought to his rich and secure bass.
The performance was recorded for release in 2019. For details of this and all of Opera Rara’s forthcoming events, visit the designated website.