Donizetti And Friends

Reviewer's Rating

Opera Rara does sterling work in recovering lost or out-of-the-way repertory from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and then producing excellent new performing editions culminating in fresh recordings. On the 225th anniversary of his birth they are launching such a project around the songs of the bel canto opera composer, Gaetano Donizetti. It is not widely known that he left nearly 200 individual songs, many of which lie unperformed and unrecorded. Musicologist Roger Parker has consulted archives, newspapers and other collections to produce an initial overview of this little known aspect of his output and the first concert offered a selection from all phases of Donizetti’s career, interleaved with songs by his friends and contemporaries so as to provide a comparative yardstick. Carlo Rizzi, artistic director of Opera Rara, was the pianist, and all the songs were sung by bel canto specialist, Lawrence Brownlee.

Anyone familiar with Donizetti as an opera composer will recognise his distinctive features in these songs – an effortless melodic inspiration, relatively simple harmonic patterns of development and a galvanising ability to display and project character and drama when the opportunity presents itself. Many of the songs were created as gifts for dedicatees, which partly explains why they remain uncollected. Most of the early ones are unremarkable in presenting conventional romantic sentiments from predictable texts of the time – pretty pieces designed to do a favour for a patron or friend. They are very elegantly presented by Brownlee and Rizzi, both entirely at home in this genre, not pressing the emotional aspect too hard, and finding scope for humour and ironic pointing of the text whenever possible.

However, the really interesting items are those where the composer finds theatrical garb for his inspiration. Early on we heard an incomplete but atmospheric setting of Dante which gave a tantalising sense of what might have been if Donizetti had really tackled the story of Paolo and Francesca from the ‘Inferno.’ Elsewhere there are fine examples of exquisite laments and virtuosic expressions of romantic ardour where you feel the restraints of the concert hall giving way to the operatic stage which was Donizetti’s true home. A the end of the concert you are left with a sense of admiration for the unceasing workaholic ethic which drove the composer to compose prolifically in all genres, and a strong conviction that many of these songs deserve to be programmed more frequently.

Alongside the sequences from Donizetti are examples, themselves rarely heard, of songs by his contemporaries. These are equally fascinating and shed light on the reach and limits of Donizetti’s song writing. It is something of a jolt somehow to see Schubert setting Italian texts by Metastasio. But the familiar unexpected harmonic side-slips and elaborate piano writing reveal the composer’s characteristic markers. The latter aspect also highlights how for the most part in Donizetti the piano writing is a subordinate underscore which supports the voice rather than acting as an equal partner or challenger. Equally interesting are examples of songs by famous Italian operatic contemporaries – Rossini, Bellini and Verdi. In each case you get a window into an aspect of the composer’s personality that is also present on a grander scale in their operas – wit and stylised sentiment from Rossini, exquisitely floated long melodic lines from Bellini, and brash, forceful and concise character studies from the young Verdi. In these cases, as perhaps with Donizetti, you get a sense of song providing a miniature rehearsal for ideas that could be developed elsewhere rather than as self-sufficient genre in its own right, such as you find in German Lieder.

Brownlee admitted he was suffering from a cold, but his singing remained accomplished, intense, full of panache, and well adapted to the repertory throughout; and he was ably supported by Rizzi, who added a few comic surprises of his own. We can only look forward with great anticipation to the recordings that are being made alongside this well-received recital.