Donizetti’s Belisario – BBCSO/Mark Elder and Opera Rara [Nicola Alaimo, Joyce El-Khoury, Russell Thomas & Camilla Roberts]

Belisario – lyrical tragedy in three acts to a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano [performed in the edition by Sir Mark Elder, Roger Parker and Jurgen Selk, based on the 2010 edition by Ottavio Sbragia; sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Irene – Camilla Roberts
Antonina – Joyce El-Khoury
Eutropio – Peter Hoare
Giustiniano – Alastair Miles
Belisario – Nicola Alaimo
Alamiro – Russell Thomas
Eudora – Julia Sporsén
Eusebio – Graeme Broadbent

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 28 October, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Sir Mark Elder. Photograph: Clive Barda/ArenapalBelisario was one of Donizetti’s great successes when it first appeared in 1836 (immediately after, and eclipsed by, Lucia di Lammermoor), but it joined many of his 73 operas to disappear after his death. London has done very well in rediscovering its undeniable splendours. Its first revival was a Royal Academy of Music staging at Sadler’s Wells in 1972, and only last year there was a concert performance by Chelsea Opera Group. Then along comes this scorcher of a performance led by Sir Mark Elder in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s new collaboration with Opera Rara, the label that has done marvels with recording the byways of the opera repertoire.

Belisario is a red-hot historical tragedy, bursting at the seams with the ingredients of Italian melodrama – the victorious Roman general Belisario is betrayed by his scheming wife Antonina; blinded, he’s sent into exile with his dutiful daughter Irene and is reunited with his long-lost son, whose death, ordered by Belisario but not carried out, was instigated by a prophetic dream; Belisario is mortally wounded in battle and dies while his wife begs his forgiveness.

The opera is unusual in that there isn’t a central romantic interest. The nearest thing to it is a passionate duet between Belisario and a prisoner-of-war, Alamiro, who turns out to be his not-dead son, and all the arias (mostly raging against or plangently reacting to fate), ariosi and ensembles, including the thrilling sextet finale to Act one, are brilliantly geared to the thud and blunder of the drama.

The six principals were cast from strength, and the four biggest roles – Belisario, Antonina. Almiro and Irene – were outstanding. Nicola Alaimo was in spectacular command of Belisario, grandstanding his way through the role’s vividly characterised dramatic and vocal demands with imposing energy and focus, and he was very affecting in his scene with Irene and in his trio with her and his rediscovered son. Joyce El-Khouri broadened the heart-on-sleeve histrionics with her sinuous, intelligent portrayal of Antonina, whose false accusation (via a forged letter) against her husband sets the plot in motion. El-Khouri sang wonderfully, producing a penetrating pianissimo of exceptional tonal solidity and dealing with all the bel canto gymnastics with effortless technical security. Her sexy and imperious presence cast a long, interesting shadow over the whole evening, and she was electrifying in her confession of perjury that closes the opera. On the side of the good guys, Camilla Roberts made a telling contrast to her gorgon of a mother as Irene, singing with a bright fullness of tone and supple flexibility in the extended father-daughter duet in Act Two.

Capping this impressive quartet was Russell Thomas as Almiro. His singing was consistently fine, at times sensationally so, with abundant heroic tone, an incisive technique and a compelling engagement with the music. At the top of his range, his tenor kept its tone without a hint of bleat, and in the gentler music, his voice was notably sweet and seductive . In the second tenor role, Eutropio (Antonina’s would-be lover and co-conspirator), Peter Hoare didn’t spare on boo-hiss villainy, matched by some admirably direct, elegantly dramatic singing. Alastair Miles filled the smaller role of the Emperor Justinian with imposing and sympathetic gravitas. The singers were lightly linked to their music stands, allowing space for interaction, and entrances and exits were cued by some skilful lighting.

What gave these considerable performances lift-off was the inspirational conducting of Mark Elder. Even with the many applause pauses, he kept the momentum surging ahead, negotiating all the central-casting Italian passion and contrasts of mood with natural fluency. The bel canto brand of black-and-white emotionalism is very much Elder’s territory. He surpassed himself here, drawing vivid and spirited playing from the BBCSO (including an abrasive cimbasso and a Neapolitan-sounding brass band); he conjured a period-style sound as identifiable as Colin Davis’s in Berlioz and made the music sound prescient of early Verdi. The BBC Singers were on cracking formYou could easily imagine a director having a lot of fun deconstructing Belisario for these distracted times. The surtitles were fine, but I missed having the printed libretto, especially for an ‘opera rara’ such as Belisario. I’ll just have to wait until the recording is released.

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