Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, once at the forefront of his works, has all but disappeared from the lyric repertoire. At first glance this is not hard to understand – The tale of a virtuous maiden defending her honour against a libidinous old Marquis, her descent into pastoral madness (no bloodstained wedding dresses here!) and the almost perfunctory restoration of both her wits and fortune are hard for a modern audience to take seriously.
Add to this an apparent mismatch between the intentions of the librettist and composer. The Marquis is described in the blackest terms by the local Intendant who portrays him as first cousin to Don Juan or even Scarpia. Yet his music marks him out as belonging to the long line of essentially harmless old duffers such as Don Pasquale whose sexual ambitions are not matched by performance and one begins to understand the work’s decline.
However, the opera’s musical riches are diverse and unexpected. Much of the music looks forward to Verdi rather than back to Bellini and Rossini and this was emphasised by Mark Elder’s superb conducting. Time and again Donizetti surprises one by not resorting to the expected musical routes. One example is Linda’s Mad Scene which, instead of being the conventional layout of soprano framed against a full company, is a fairly restrained (and moving) duet with her friend, Pierotto (unusually for Donizetti a mezzo travesti part).
The Royal Opera presented the opera in concert (perhaps understandably nervous of what certain directors could wreak on its fragile beauties!) with a mainly young cast, many of whom were making their debuts at the house. As already mentioned Elder secured superb playing from the orchestra (the score abounds with felicitous instrumental solos) and excellent singing from the chorus. Special mention should be made of the semi-chorus portraying the Young Savoyards who excelled in their many small solo lines in the framing acts.
The huge role of Linda was undertaken by the Cuban-American soprano, Eglise Gutiérrez. She has a small extremely agile voice but some of the sounds she makes in alt sound forced. The e flats at the end of the Mad Scene and in the finale were undoubtedly voiced and held but they had little of the punch of Gruberova or Damrau, far less the heady beauty of Sutherland. The middle of the voice was far stronger and I suspect (unless she was singing through an indisposition) her future lies in the lyric not the coloratura rep.
Stephen Costello, singing her beloved Carlo, appeared overcome with nervousness at first but settled somewhat as the evening progressed. He has a secure and often beautiful voice but I detected a “buzz” on the edge of his tone which I trust was only due to a slight indisposition. He sings Rinuccio later this season and it will be interesting to see how comes over in a full production.
The role of the would-be seducer was sung with panache and a real sense of theatre by the invaluable Alessandro Corbelli whose every scene lifted the evening beyond a mere concert. He was, predictably, a firm favourite with the audience. Ludovic Tezier (who I saw last as Henri in the Lyons production of Lucie de Lammermoor) was in superb voice as Linda’s outraged father. His denunciation of his daughter was suitably terrifying.
When the ROH finally gets round to reviving I Puritani, Tezier should be engaged as Riccardo. The breeches part of Pierotto was beautifully voiced by Marianna Pizzolato although I would prefer a slightly less vibrant, Verdian tone for this part. The pivotal part of the Intendant was played by Balint Szabó who fielded firm rolling bass tone but I guiltily wondered how much more a Ramey or Siepi could have made of the role. The fact that the role was played regularly by Lablache is indicative of the high regard in which it was held.
So, by and large, a satisfying evening with high praise due to Elder and Tezier especially and thanks to the ROH for reviving a work full of both beautiful music and also many delightful surprises. If they plan to continue to revive unusual Donizetti works can I put in plea for Poliuto with Alagna or Alvarez in the title role?