La Favorite by Gaetano Donizetti

Orchestra of St. Luke's

Sat, July 11, 2015, 8:00pm


Will Crutchfield, Caramoor’s Director of Opera, comments:

French operas of Italian masters, cont’d: La Favorite continues Caramoor’s track record of reviving the Parisian grand operas of the Italian masters.  Rossini’s Guillaume Tell in 2011 won recognition in the national and international press for its revelation the composer’s final masterwork for the stage; Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes and Don Carlos followed to similar acclaim in 2013, and now it is Donizetti’s turn.   La Favorite was the second of the four works he completed for the Paris Opera, and was such a success that it was given there every single season from 1840 to 1894, with occasional revivals up to 1918.  But after that the opera circulated mostly in a heavily censored Italian translation and the world lost sight of Donizetti’s original.

Leonore Clémentine Margaine, mezzo-soprano
Fernand  Santiago Ballerini, tenor
Alphonse  Stephen Powell, baritone
Baldassare  Daniel Mobbs, bass-baritone
Will Crutchfield, conductor
Orchestra of St. Luke’s

Caramoor Coach GraphicCatch the Caramoor Coach!

Round-trip or one-way transportation to Caramoor in a luxury, air-conditioned coach from Grand Central/Lexington Avenue (between 42nd & 43rd Streets), departing at 4:00pm, arriving in plenty of time for a bite or garden stroll.

Choose this add-on when buying tickets to the performance.

Arrive Early…

For special lectures and recitals in the Spanish Courtyard before the performance. Free to ticket-holders!

    3:00pm / Le chant héroïque

    Will Crutchfield explains the long-lost style of singing that animated Parisian grand opera, with rare recorded examples from the dawn of the 20th century.

    4:00pm / Bel canto a due

    Caramoor’s Bel Canto Apprentice Artists present Italian vocal duets in this elegant afternoon recital.

    5:00pm / La Favorite: The Original Cast

    The Bel Canto Young Artists sing arias and duets from the repertory of the Paris Opera stars who introduced the opera in 1840: Rosine Stoltz, Gilbert Duprez, Paul Barriolhet, Nicolas-Prosper Levasseur.

    6:00pm / Dinner Break
    7:00pm / Pre-Opera Lecture

    Author and long time Metropolitan Opera broadcaster, William Berger, brings his Opera expertise to this Pre-Opera lecture on La Favorite.

    8:00pm / La Favorite

Orchestra of St. Luke’s (OSL) is one of America’s most versatile and distinguished orchestras, collaborating with the world’s greatest artists and performing approximately 70 concerts each year—including its Carnegie Hall Orchestra Series, Chamber Music Series at The Morgan Library & Museum and Brooklyn Museum, and summer residency at Caramoor Music Festival. OSL has commissioned more than 50 new works, including four this season; has given more than 170 world, U.S., and New York City premieres; and appears on more than 100 recordings, including four Grammy Award winners and seven releases on its own label, St. Luke’s Collection. Pablo Heras-Casado, named 2014 Conductor of the Year by Musical America, is OSL’s principal conductor.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this season, OSL began as a chamber ensemble based at The Church of St. Luke in the Fields in Greenwich Village. Today, St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble consists of 21 virtuoso artists who perform a diverse repertoire and make up OSL’s artistic core.

OSL owns and operates The DiMenna Center for Classical Music in Midtown Manhattan, where it shares a building with the Baryshnikov Arts Center. The DiMenna Center is New York City’s premier venue for rehearsal, recording, and learning, having quickly gained a reputation for its superb acoustics, state-of-the-art facilities, and affordability. Since opening in 2011, The DiMenna Center has welcomed more than 50,000 visitors, including more than 300 ensembles and artists such as Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Emanuel Ax, Joshua Bell, Valery Gergiev, James Levine, James Taylor, and Sting.OSL hosts hundreds of neighbors, families, and school children at its home each year for free community events.

Through its Community & Education programs, OSL has introduced audiences across New York City to live classical music. OSL brings free chamber concerts to the five boroughs; offers free interactive music programs at The DiMenna Center; provides chamber music coaching for adult amateurs; and engages 10,000 public school students each year through its Free School Concerts. In 2013, OSL launched Youth Orchestra of St. Luke’s (YOSL), an intensive in- and after-school instrumental coaching program emphasizing musical excellence and social development, in partnership with Police Athletic League (PAL) and public schools in the Clinton / Hudson Yards neighborhood.

La favorite SYNOPSIS


Act I

In the Monastery of St James of Compostella, the monks are making their way to worship. Balthazar, Prior of the monastery and a powerful figure in ecclesiastical politics, enters with Fernand, a young member of the order. Fernand is troubled, and Balthazar coaxes an explanation:  at prayer one day he felt he had seen an angel in human form.  He has fallen in love with the unknown lady, and wants to be released from his vows.  Balthazar tries persuasion and threats, but Fernand is resolute, and the Prior dismisses him angrily.

When we next see Fernand, is is being greeted at a luxurious island retreat by Inès, a companion of his beloved Léonor.  They have begun a romance, but he still knows nothing about her except that she must be a woman of high station, since he has to be brought in secret and under blindfold to their rendez-vous.  Léonor surprises him, though, by answering his renewed questions with an insistence that he must forget her despite their mutual love – and gives him a letter that, she says, contains an important gift.

As the confused young man is hurried off, he hears the King of Spain announced.  So his mysterious angel must be of the royal family!  Meanwhile the opened letter contains a military commission – a precious chance for an unconnected provincial like himself to rise in the world, and, if successful, aspire to her hand after all.

Act 2

In the gardens of Alcazar at Seville, King Alphonse basks in the victory his troops have won, with Fernand at their head, against the Moors. To his courtier Don Gaspar he expresses his satisfaction with the young captain; left alone, he expresses his resolve to divorce the Queen and marry his mistress, who is none other than Léonor. She, however, has repented of their illicit love.  She tells Alphonse of her unhappiness, and forcefully rejects his suggestion of what would be a scandalous marriage.  The King ponders this turn of events while revelers and dancers celebrate the victory.

Afterwards, two interruptions further complicate his plans:  Don Gaspar returns bearing gossip to the effect that Léonor has taken a lover.  She had not told him this, but now confirms it boldly.  Before Alphonse can react, Balthazar appears as an emissary of the Vatican, bearing a papal bull expressly forbidding the King’s audacious plan to dissolve the royal marriage.  The scene ends in a standoff between the voice of the Church and the defiant person of the Crown.

Act 3

Alphonse is to honor Fernand for his role in the war, and asks him to name his reward. Fernand responds that his highest wish is to marry the woman who has inspired his bravery.  “Done,” says the King, only to learn in the next moment that it is Léonor.  Not without a certain sense of irony, Alphonse sees that he has solved all his problems at a stroke:  the Pope need not be antagonized after all; the disaffected mistress is now provided for; and Fernand has his due reward.  But he reserves a certain sting of punishment for the pair:  Léonor tries to inform Fernand of the full situation, so that he can either forgive her or reject her, but Alphonse orders Inès arrested before she can deliver it.

The wedding therefore takes place with the bride believing herself forgiven and accepted, but the groom still in the dark.  Light dawns on him gradually through the scornful behavior of his new peers in the nobility, who hint and snicker until finally it comes out that the newly minted Duke has just married the King’s paramour.  Considering himself humiliated and dishonored, Fernand breaks his sword at Alphonse’s feet and resolves to return to his religious vocation, chastened, just as Balthazar had warned, by the ways of the secular world.

Act 4

In the monastery to which Fernand has returned, the monks are engaged in the ritual digging of their own graves, as an expression of their renunciation of the world and readiness for the eternal life beyond.  Fernand, though, is unable to forget his love for Léonor.  A weak pilgrim, seeking to take holy vows on the point of death, is admitted to the monastery; as soon as there is an opportunity to speak to Fernand alone, the supposed novice is revealed as Léonor herself, who has come to beg forgiveness before she dies.  All his affection is renewed and he urges her to flee with him, but it is too late, and she expires at his feet.  Balthazar tells the other monks that “the novice” has passed away, and the crushed Fernand tells them they will need to pray for his soul by the morrow.




Conductor’s Note


The Donizetti revival has been thriving for a long time – if we count it as starting from the eras of Callas and Sutherland, it has been going on for longer than Donizetti’s own career. So by now most operagoers have some idea how wrong were the old generalizations that cast him as a lightweight composer, mass-producing operas by formula. Still, it comes as a bit of a surprise that in the 2015-2016 season of the Metropolitan Opera, he will be the second-most-performed composer – ahead of Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner, trailing only Puccini (and by only one title, six to five).   By that measure, and many others, Donizetti has “arrived.” He no longer needs a revival – instead he needs the constant renewal and re-study that we always give to music’s leading masters. And certain of his operas need special rescue operations.


La favorite is the sixth Donizetti title to be given by Bel Canto at Caramoor, but only the second among those he wrote in French for Paris (where it was first heard in 1840, and where it reached nearly 1,000 performances before being retired in the 1920s).   The problems of taking French grand operas “on the road” – familiar to our audiences and our artistic team from the Caramoor revivals of Guillaume Tell, Les vêpres siciliennes, and Don Carlos – hit La favorite especially hard. It found international circulation in a bowdlerized Italian translation that the composer himself called “wretched” and that Andrew Porter summarized as “an insult to Donizetti.” This is because – beyond the usual problem of bridging the gap between French and Italian verses, between Parisian and Italian forms and styles – La favorite featured subject matter that Italy’s censors were nowhere near ready to tolerate.


The story (the real story!) is summarized elsewhere in the program. Its problematic elements, from the perspective of pre-Risorgimento Italy: a “fallen woman” is presented in fully sympathetic light; a reigning monarch is depicted defying the Pope himself in preferring his mistress to his Queen; a likeable young man is shown turning his back on religious vows; a good deal of the plot is concerned with the contest between power-brokers inside and outside the Church. The censors’ solution: No more monks, no more vows; the Prior becomes the literal instead of spiritual father of the young man – and also the father of the King’s lawful wife! Why? Since he can no longer be an emissary from the Pope, some excuse was needed for his arrival to denounce the King’s behavior. To say that this makes nonsense of the characters and their interactions is to put it very mildly. Just to give one example: Though Fernand is now supposed to be the King’s brother-in-law, the two do not recognize one another on sight, and the young man is still apparently an obscure provincial who needs help to get ahead in life. The last scene, in which Fernand was originally supposed to have returned to the monastery in disillusionment to renew his vows, became a string of absurdities.

In the later 19th century a more liberal Italy allowed the religious element to return to the stage setting and the summaries of the plot — but without bothering to go back and undo the preposterous changes made scene by scene in the actual text and music. So the “La favorite” that most of us have heard if we have heard the opera at all is a real mess, one of the worst hatchet jobs in opera’s history. That it survived at all is a very strong testament to the power of the score and the inspiration of its melodies. But as far as we know, the original libretto has still not been heard in the New York area. (The most recent Opera Orchestra of New York performance, about a decade ago, did use a touched-up Italian translation that remedied the worst confusions; the most recent Metropolitan production, about 40 years ago, did not.)

That original libretto is an honest drama: old-fashioned in some ways, but coherent and forceful. It was created on short notice by the leading Paris librettist Eugène Scribe when, for various reasons, a new Donizetti opera was needed quickly. The understanding was that the new work would be partly adapted from L’ange de Nisida, which Donizetti had planned as his next Paris score, but whose vocal roles did not correspond to the cast currently on hand. Since L’ange de Nisida was also a Scribe libretto, it was a fairly easy matter for the poet to build the new one around a story similar to large portions of the old one, and the music Donizetti had already written for them. The composer also cannibalized parts of yet another opera that he had only begun to write, on yet another Scribe libretto, Le duc d’Albe. (This was dusted off 15 years later to become Verdi’s Les vêpres.) So when commentators, remarking as usual on Donizetti’s astonishing speed in composition, wrote of his having completed a whole act of La favorite in one evening (“after dinner”), there may have been some exaggeration: somewhat less than half the music was really brand new.


That story of the opera’s origin, however, should not be taken to suggest a patchwork result — after all, this is not a matter of squeezing music conceived for one drama willy-nilly into another, but rather of two creators re-purposing their own work-in-progress, and designing it in full knowledge of the materials that they had already prepared.


The finished opera can be criticized for a few moments that are awkward theatrically (a crucial letter is sent and intercepted on the same page, requiring a very precipitous exit of the prima donna if she is not to know, as she must not, that it was never delivered), and it can perhaps be criticized by post-Verdian standards for leaving the characterizations a little too black-and-white, the situations a little too bluntly stated. But the very fact that we would even think of applying those standards shows how much we feel in this score the tightly wound tensions of Verdi’s musical dramaturgy. Every new Donizetti opera one studies brings its new revelation of the lessons his young colleague learned from him. The confusion and anger of Alfredo in La traviata is a clear descendant of the scene in which Fernand rebukes the King and Léonor in Act Three of La favorite, to take just one example.


And if the characters are not psychologically probed like Violetta, Rigoletto, or King Philip, perhaps it is as well to remember that Verdi did not always chose that path either. The principals of La favorite are more like those of Aida: four glorious archetypes, filled to the brim with passionate, expressive music that embodies their needs and drives.   Donizetti’s melodic gift was at its purest, simplest, and most inspired in this late work. The arias we know and love as “O mio Fernando,” “Vien, Leonora,” “A tanto amor,” and “Spirto gentil” —all the more balanced and elegant with their original verses restored — have kept this opera alive even during the long years when Donizetti was underrated. Now, refreshed by a new generation of scholars and by audiences and performers interested in finding out what composers really wrote, La favorite is ready to take its place near the head of the work list of a composer newly confirmed in his own turn as one of opera’s greatest practitioners.




A postscript on the performing edition: Donizetti was a concise composer, and La favorite is not nearly as long as the biggest Parisian operas of Rossini, Meyerbeer, and Verdi. It is therefore more practical for complete or near-complete performance; the few cuts we have made are of choice and not of necessity, and they are very few. We are also restoring one important item that the Opéra itself cut after opening night, a cabaletta to the duet between the King and his dissatisfied mistress Léonor. As far as we are aware it has not been performed since that evening in 1840, and it was never printed in any published score until the recent Ricordi critical edition, which includes it as an appendix.


One presumes that on opening night, this cabaletta must have fallen short in “effect” between the beautiful slow movement that precedes it and the colorful ballet that follows. It seems to me an incomprehensible cut. The missing section carries forward an unfinished argument over where their relationship is going, and gives the otherwise too-often passive Léonor a chance to stand up for herself. And the music is good. We are happy to be able to give Caramoor’s audience the first chance to confirm or refute that judgment.