Monday, August 31, 2015

A Monk, His King and Their Mistress

Gaetano Donizetti’s La Favorite
Bel Canto at Caramoor
July 11, 2015

The monk and the object of his affection.
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
Bel Canto at Caramoor is truly one of the great operatic summer pleasures. We discovered this festival last year with an electrifying Lucrezia Borgia and have been huge fans since. Beyond the charm of the overall pre-show experience (picnic on the villa’s idyllic grounds, stimulating afternoon recitals by young artists, interesting topical talks), the quality of the evening’s pièce de résistance – the actual opera – is incredibly high across the board. Caramoor is all about the music. The orchestra and singers are so successful in creating a vivid bel canto world that one almost forgets that the opera is not staged. This summer was no exception with the rarely performed La Favorite, Donizetti’s take on Parisian “grand opera.” While this work fits the strict form requirements of this French genre (historical subject, grand scenes, ballet piece, showcase arias), it is also unmistakably Donizetti big dramatic bel canto. Beautiful singing is front and center here and the plot is full of juicy (and irreverent) twists and turns.

The young monks pines.
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
Our romantic yet clueless hero is a monk who falls for a mysterious, angelically beautiful young lady. It turns out that the angelic lady is the king’s favorite mistress, who manages to keep this detail a secret from the pining monk and to pull some strings to make him a war hero dear to the king. The king meanwhile is sick of his wife and pressures the Pope to concede him a divorce so that he can marry his mistress. The Vatican responds with a big “no,” topped with a thundering curse on the adulteress mistress. At the same time, the king discovers that said mistress has betrayed him with the monk-turned-war-hero and takes his revenge by allowing the two to marry. Once the ex-monk learns that his angelic new wife is really a Vatican-cursed courtesan he loses it, dumps her, goes back to his monastery and retakes his vows. The ex-favorite mistress shows up at the monastery very sick and begs the monk to forgive her, he of course welcomes her back into his heart with open arms and reaffirms his ardent love for her, but it’s too late and she dies in his arms. All monks pray. Curtain.

The Vatican emissary holds forth.
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
The various dramatic tensions here were masterfully delivered by a great cast. Argentine tenor Santiago Ballerini as the monk-in-love, Fernand, was the revelation of the night. This young singer (not yet thirty years old) embodied the romantic hero with soaring outbursts of pure ardent love, his singing was lyrical and fluid and displayed a sincere passionate beauty and agility that was utterly moving and exciting. In his first arias the power of his convictions to leave his calling at the monastery to pursue his feelings for the mysterious woman shined through brilliantly as his voice soared into the upper reaches of the tent at Caramoor and up into the night sky. He carried his chest with the haughty pride of someone with convictions, certain in his love, and made a convincing war hero too. Manly and agile. I definitely look forward to hearing more from him.

The favorite of king.
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
The title role of La Favorite was successfully portrayed by French mezzo Clémentine Margaine. Hers is a complex and tormented character: she may initially come across as distant and double faced (all lovey dovey with the monk while sleeping with the king!) but when the drama explodes her emotional core comes out as she fights for one last glimpse of happiness with her loving monk. Ms. Margaine has a clear, clean-edged purity to her sound and was particularly convincing in the heart-wrenching finale and in her raging duets with the king, played by baritone Stephen Powell who exuded an arrogant, manly power.

Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs as Balthazar (prior of Fernand’s monastery and Vatican emissary) delivered the night’s most chilling and terrifying highlight when he denounced the king’s adulteress and leveled a curse on her with all the wrath of the lord behind his booming voice – or is he really the devil? The ferocious intensity he unleashed against her was nothing short of diabolical and Mr. Mobbs was nothing short of memorable.

Maestro Crutchfield in action.
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
Under the baton of maestro Will Crutchfield, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s gave an inspired performance. Particularly impressive was their rendition of the ballet music during which the first violin in particular was given ample room to shine. I don’t know what Crutchfield’s secret is, but he always manages to bring the best out of his performers. We’re definitely looking forward to whatever he has in store for next summer.  

Lei & Lui

Where all the magic happens.
Photo credit: Caramoor

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