Bel Canto at Caramoor 2015

Bel Canto at Caramoor opens the 2015 opera season with Donizetti’s La favorite.

Saturday night, July 11 marks the opening of Bel Canto at Caramoor with Donizetti’s grand opera, La favorite. Conceived by conductor, scholar and vocal connoisseur Will Crutchfield, Bel Canto at Caramoor has been a regular feature of the Caramoor Center for Music and Arts since 1997. Many stars of today’s opera firmament were first introduced to area audiences under Crutchfield’s baton.

OperaMetro (OM) caught up with Mr. Crutchfield who, as this is written, is literally on the podium in rehearsal. His words were sent via email to my questions, edited and posted here as an ongoing conversation..

Will Crutchfield conducts Bel Canto at Caramoor

Will Crutchfield conducts Bel Canto at Caramoor

OM: Thank you, as always, for talking to me, Will.

WC: You’re welcome of course.

OM: What, in your experience of the work, makes Donizetti’s La favorite a great grand opera?

WC: First, La favorite is actually more compact than what we think of as the full-scale French grand opera.  It's in four acts not five, and even without cuts it is less than three hours of music (I'm not counting intermissions, just playing time).  We are making very minimal cuts so as to hit three hours with a single intermission between the second and third acts.  You would have to butcher Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes or Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots to get them down to that running time, but it's easy with La favorite.  So I think I'd say that Favorite is better described as a progressive 1840-style Italian opera with a ballet stuck in, and a French libretto.

What makes it a great opera is another matter, and the answer is the virtues we’re familiar with from Donizetti's Italian masterpieces:  Great melodies in abundance, spot-on sense of character and conflict.

OM: How does it contrast with his later Dom Sébastien?

WCDom Sébastien is longer and more "French" in its construction.

OM: The tale of Favorite’s patchwork libretto and composition is complex and Donizetti was a busy boy at the time, under pressure from deadlines. Stylistically speaking, do seams show anywhere? 

WC: Seams, no.  Haste, yes occasionally.  Much of the music was composed for the abortive project of L'ange de Nisidabut the switch to La favorite started with a great advantage, which is that Donizetti and Scribe were working in close collaboration on both projects.  So Scribe knew exactly how to construct Favorite to take advantage of the scenes already written.  You never have a sense of being jolted from one thing to the next. 

Where haste shows, I would say, is in some of the transitional passages and recitatives that advance the action to the next big musico-dramatic moment.  It's possible to find these more carefully handled in other Donizetti operas, and here and there I feel the need to adjust the placement of chords or the rhythm of the vocal parts to clean them up.  It's also possible that Donizetti was still getting used to the French language.  One day I want to page through all his French operas in order to see if my hunch about his French is correct.  Favorite (especially the parts written for L'ange de Nisida) was one of the first.

OM: Composers wrote for specific artists in those days: Rosina Stolz and Gilbert Duprez, to name two. The tenor role of Fernand lies quite high. Is his role the reason the opera is infrequently performed?

WC: My guess is that Favorite is performed infrequently today because of the prima donna role, not the tenor role.  Alfredo Kraus and Luciano Pavarotti both loved the part of Fernand and Kraus in particular performed it a quite a lot. It works well for any tenor who is good in, let's say, Faust and Roméo on the French side and Rodolfo and Duke of Mantua on the Italian side. 

But it has been a while since the world has had a full-voiced mezzosoprano who commands attention the way Giulietta Simionato, Fiorenza Cossotto, and Fedora Barbieri did in their heydays.  All three of them sang La favorite repeatedly (in Italian translation, of course).  In Italy, it was absolutely a repertory piece up until their retirements - not a rarity like Anna Bolena or Roberto Devereux.  And in France it survived much better than any of Verdi's French operas up until around the time of World War One, after which I suppose it began to seem old-fashioned.

OMAnge si pur, Fernand’s aria, is justly well known, but my experience of the opera is that there are many other fine numbers. What other vocal numbers should members of the audience perk up their ears for?

WC: This opera is chock full of "hits."  Both of the main baritone solos have been recorded by practically all the major baritone stars of the early 20th century, both French and Italian.  The mezzo aria is still a concert staple today.  The tenor has another aria, in Act I, which has also been done often and impressively as a separate excerpt.

OM: Oh yes, I love that tenor aria in Act I. I feel like it gets lost as does Tonio’s soulful aria in the final act of La Fille du régiment in comparison to the more familiar showpiece in Act I.

WC: The bass doesn't have a formal aria, but has two very impressive solos that form a part of larger numbers - especially a choral prayer in the last act that is one of the simplest and most beautiful things Donizetti ever wrote. The great Ezio Pinza recorded it in his very first sessions.

In a way, I guess I'm saying that the opera itself is not really so much a rarity as others we have done - but what is a rarity, and an important one, is the chance to hear it in its original French form.  It's a long story, but - amongst the various transformations of French operas for the Italian stage, the Italian text of La Favorita is one of the worst.  Maybe the very worst if we're limiting the discussion to masterpieces.

OM: Tell me about your singers for this Bel Canto performance.

Clementine Margaine is Leonore in La favorite

Clementine Margaine is Leonore in La favorite

WC: There are some important Caramoor debuts:  Clémentine Margaine is a wonderfully rich-voiced exciting French mezzosoprano. She sings Carmen everywhere; she’s already booked to sing it at the Met in the near-ish future. But there is much more to her than Carmen, believe me!

Santiago Ballerini sings Fernand

Santiago Ballerini sings Fernand

Santiago Ballerini, an Argentinian tenor very much in the Alfredo Kraus mold with an effortless top range and a great feeling for traditional operatic melody and expression.  Isabel Gaudì is a charming Spanish coloratura as Inès. I first heard her when I was conducting at the Pesaro Rossini Festival last year.  The lower male voices are already Caramoor favorites:  Stephen Powell as Alfonso IX of Castile and Daniel Mobbs as the Father Superior, Balthazar.

OM: Thank you Will as always for your insightful commentary. And best wishes to you and your daughter Victoria for the upcoming Dialogues!

WC: Thank you. Again, a pleasure.

Photos: Nicolas Savine, Gabe Palacio, and others.

Bel Canto at Caramoor presents Donizetti’s La favorite on Saturday evening July 11 in the Venetian Theatre; the performance starts at 8 p.m. There will be one intermission.

On Saturday July 25 Bel Canto at Caramoor presents Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmélites in concert, semi-staged under the direction of Victoria Crutchfield. The program begins at 8 p.m.

The Caramoor Center for Music and Arts is located in Katonah, NY. To order tickets, call the Box Office at 914.232.1252 or visit www.caramoor.org.

Note: some historical Addenda for Donizetti’s La favorite are posted on the top of the page Addenda.

Summer is here, no complaints!

JRS