Elisabetta, Concert Performance, Royal Festival Hall, 16 December 1997
Gaetano Donizetti

          Replacement value, The Sunday Times, 21 December 1997
          The opera they tried to flog, The Telegraph, 27 December 1997
          Bizarre - but seldom boring, The Times, 18 December 1997
          Imbecilic, I'm afraid, The Spectator,  3 January 1998


Replacement value
Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times, 21 December 1997

Alagna stood in for Pavarotti in Verdi's Requiem, while a young Peruvian
shone in Donizetti.

A double deficit of tenors hit two high-profile musical events this
week. The great Luciano Pavarotti was to have made two rare - for him -
appearances as one of the soloists in legit concert-hall performances of
Verdi's Requiem (Symphony Hall, Birmingham, last Monday, the Festival
Hall two days later), but an illness contracted at the end of a run of
Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore in Naples forced a last-minute
cancellation. Meanwhile, the Royal Opera, preparing the first-ever
performance (in concert, also at the RFH) of Donizetti's Elisabetta similarly
lost their leading man, the younger Italian tenor, Giuseppe Sabbatini, a
specialist belcantisto like Pav in his salad days. [...]

The opening of RO's RFH season of concert-operas might have been sabotaged
by the withdrawal of Sabbatini from Donizetti's Elisabetta, but Juan Diego
Florez, the young Peruvian tenor, came to the rescue and effortlessly
stole the show from the protagonista , the Hungarian prima donna Andrea
Rost. By now, most Donizettians will know the story of this supposedly
lost opera by the maestro of Bergamo, found in the ROH cellar, Acts I
and III in 1984 by the American scholar Will Crutchfield, Act II by
Richard Bonynge, the Australian conductor, bel canto specialist and
husband of Joan Sutherland. Strictly speaking the score was not lost at
all. Elisabetta is a final reworking - probably for Her Majesty's Theatre in the
late 1840s - of one of Donizetti's first Neapolitan operas, Otto mesi in due ore
(Eight months in two hours). It tells the extraordinary tale of the Russian
heroine, Elizavyeta, who crosses the Siberian wastes to Moscow in an
(effective) attempt to restore the reputation of her father, Count
Potoski, wrongly accused of treason against the tsar.

Donizetti had planned a substantial revision, putatively entitled
Elisabeth, for Paris in 1840 but that went unperformed, so the composer
presumably hoped to salvage this improved score for London,
re-translating it into Italian and writing additional music: there is
not much to speak of beyond the freshly composed bravura finale for the
prima donna, a lively waltz- time number with florid variations.
Elisabetta may be no masterpiece, but it was well worth encountering in
the Royal Opera's performance: Florez (Potoski) is a real find - an
elegant tenore di grazia in the Luigi Alva tradition, with real
Italianate ping and a brilliant top C-sharp. He really understands the
shapeliness of a bel canto line, which is more than can be said for
Rost. She is the latest model of the production-line diva who makes an enticing
CD cover but sounds less appealing - metallic under pressure - than she looks.
As a sort of Stupenda Spice, she will do, I suppose, in music that craves a Callas, a
Sutherland or a Caballe. I would shrug my shoulders with a faute-de-mieux,
were it not for the fact that we heard a great deal mieux , barely three weeks ago
in the same hall, when Mariella Devia, the Italian soprano, sang Donizetti's
Linda di Chamounix with consummate artistry and poise.

The opera they tried to flog
Malcolm Hayes, Telegraph, 27 December 1997

Malcolm Hayes is entranced by the Royal Opera's Elisabetta

The Royal Opera's concert performance of Elisabetta at the Festival Hall
was the world premiere, no less, of the score discovered in Covent
Garden's basement in the 1980s. Let's be thankful that nobody bought it
when the Royal Opera tried to auction it off at Sotheby's a few years
ago, and that Elisabetta didn't disappear unheard and for ever into the
archives of some mad American collector.

Donizetti put this dotty but affecting tale of daughterly love and
devotion in Peter the Great's Russia through a labyrinthine saga of
operatic versions for theatres in several cities, including Naples and
Paris, before it ended up forgotten and unperformed as Elisabetta at Her
Majesty's Theatre in London in the mid-1840s. The best passages have
real loveliness, such as the heroine's aria - glowingly accompanied by
solo cello and a pair of horns - as she resolves to travel from Siberia
to Moscow to restore the good name of Count Potoski, her traduced and
exiled father.

There's also a vintage episode of Italian operatic lunacy, as Elisabetta
is saved from a flood by climbing onto the tomb of the dead daughter of
her father's enemy - the erstwhile boyar Ivano, who's come down in the
world and is now conveniently earning his living as a Siberian ferryman.
The tomb floats off downriver with Elisabetta perched on it. (How I'd
love to see the latest trendy pseudo-Marxist producer trying to do
something with that.)

Attentively conducted by Carlo Rizzi, the Royal Opera's excellent cast
scintillated throughout, led by the sparkling expertise and delight of
Andrea Rost's Elisabetta. Juan Diego Floréz, replacing Giuseppe
Sabbatini in the role of Count Potoski at short notice, offered a tenor
voice of real style and musical intelligence, taking in some
stratospheric top notes with no bother at all. Alessandro Corbelli
relished his entertaining role as Michele, the Siberia-visiting courier
who just happens to be the son of Elisabetta's nurse, etc, while
Alastair Miles sang splendidly as the passionately remorseful Ivano. A
lovely evening from start to finish.

Bizarre - but seldom boring
Rodney Milnes, The Times, 18 December 1997

The somewhat chaotic autograph of Donizetti's Elisabetta was unearthed
piecemeal from the bowels of Covent Garden ten years ago, and the Royal
Opera gave the work its premiere in concert form on Tuesday, a nice
salute to the composer in his bicentenary year. Unfortunately, not even
the most determinedly romantic journalist could hail it as a long-lost
masterpiece. It is very interesting, in its provenance apart
from anything else, and that's about it. It started out as an early
opera semiseria (1827) in Naples under the impenetrable title of Otto
mesi in due ore ("Eight Months in Two Hours"). It was often revised but
less often performed in Italy at the time; Donizetti turned it into an
opera comique for Paris in the 1830s, when it failed to reach the stage
(the theatre went bankrupt); and then brought it to London and combined
the two versions, in Italian, for Her Majesty's; once more, it failed to
reach the stage (one reason was that the theatre burnt down) and ended
up in the Bow Street cellars.

The plot is almost as picaresque. The resourceful heroine's father,
falsely accused of some misdemeanour, has been exiled to Siberia. She
decides to walk to Moscow (or St Petersburg, take your pick from the
text) to clear his name (first act) and succeeds (third act). The second
act is crowded with event: she encounters first the false accuser, who
out of guilt has become a ferryman on the River Kama, then a horde of
Tartars who threaten (unsuccessfully) her honour; there is a hurricane,
"the river bursts its banks" the stage directions announce blandly, and
Elisabetta is saved by floating downstream on the false accuser's dead
daughter's coffin. The Royal Opera must be very glad that it wasn't
having to stage all this.

There is an unfinished feel to the score as performed; had Donizetti
seen it into the theatre, he would doubtless have revised and filled out
some of the bald recitative, tightened one or two passages and turned
some corners more gracefully, but the editorial team has rightly given
it to us as the composer left it. As always with Donizetti, even routine
passages are suddenly illuminated with a touch of instrumental colour or
a startling harmonic progression that really make you sit up: Elisabetta
is bizarre, but seldom boring. The intervention of the horde - "A
rollicking band of Tartars we" would be W.S. Gilbert's version - is
great fun.

Carlo Rizzi, a renowned Donizettian, conducted with innate sympathy, and
the good, solid cast gave their all - as listeners to next Monday's
broadcast will hear. The needle-fine Andrea Rost negotiated Elisabetta's
coloratura with aplomb (she has a merry waltz finale) and Alastair Miles
brought great distinction to the false accuser's big scena of remorse.
There is a barely relevant comic character, sung with engaging style by
Alessandro Corbelli, and the young Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez took
over at short notice as the father: his voice is as yet on the dry side,
but he is intensely musical, has no fear of top notes and made much of his
substantial third-act number. Yes, very interesting indeed.


Imbecilic, I'm afraid
Michael Tanner, The Spectator,  3 January 1998

It was a coup for the Royal Opera to be able to put on, even if only in concert form, a recently rediscovered Donizetti opera to celebrate the overshadowed bicentenary of his birth. Elisabetta, who is not of any specified location, as it were, but di Siberia in this action, is zany even by bel canto plot standards, and without sufficient rousing or moving or amusing music to lead to any permanently resuscitated state. While one was grateful for the provision of the libretto in the original and translation, it did force home just how imbecilic an opera this is, four librettists, including the composer, having to share the blame of adapting a fifth man's play. After the discovery of the outer two acts in the cellars of Covent Garden in 1984 - let's hope nothing more turns up - Richard Bonynge came across a signed version of Act II in 1988, and everything was in place for intensive scholarly activity in an absurd cause. Needless to say it was forthcoming, and as a result an enjoyable evening was had by all in the Royal Festival Hall. It is striking how Donizetti brings out as evidently demarcated an audience as Wagner, and one as dedicated to the finer points of the version being performed, for all the world as if it were a masterpiece for the ages.

The conductor, Carlo Rizzi, believed in taking the bull by the horns. If Bonynge conducts mature Verdi as though it were minor Donizetti, Rizzi does the reverse. Unfortunately, what works one way round doesn't the other, so the ultra-dramatic approach only served to magnify the music's frequent triviality. In the middle of what is categorised as a `romantic melodrama' we have, thanks to Neapolitan requirements, a baritone buffo who has two extended stretches which would merely irritate in the context of, say, Don Pasquale, but here destroy any momentum the piece might have achieved. Alessandro Corbelli had the task of singing this jarring stuff, and, though he did it with panache, that only served to emphasise how incongruous it is. He has a lengthy duet with the neartragic heroine, sung by Andrea Rost. This extremely popular young soprano has a lovely voice, but so far not much idea of what to do with it, so that in their scene Corbelli easily won, in his idiom, over her, against the plot-line and the general sense of the drama.

In Act II, with the buffo absent, things became more consistent, and the level of invention is notably higher. As the villain Ivano, Alastair Miles gave so strong a rendition of his relatively huge part that the opera started listing in the other direction. Only the close of the act, in which the river overflows to music perfunctory even by bel canto standards of depiction, and Elisabetta is miraculously borne to safety on the villain's daughter's coffin, reasserts emphatically the basic inanity of the piece. Meanwhile, we have been treated to, and will hear much more of, the singer whose triumph the evening progressively became: Juan Diego Florez, a young Peruvian (and a very late replacement) as arresting in appearance and manner as in his vocalism, with successions of top Ds dispatched with an elegant wave of the wrist. Cast as the wronged father of the heroine, he was implausible, but that was the least of one's worries on the score of verisimilitude. Even when Donizetti is at his mediocre secondbest, he is invigorating when given this classy treatment, and the evening was mainly fun with some moments that were more than that.

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