Opera Rara – Donizetti’s L’esule di Roma – Albina Shagimuratova, Nicola Alaimo & Sergey Romanovsky; conducted by Carlo Rizzi

Donizetti

L’esule di Roma – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by Domenico Gilardoni after Luigi Marchionni’s Il proscritto roman [performed in a new critical edition; sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Argelia – Albina Shagimuratova
Murena – Nicola Alaimo
Settimio – Sergey Romanovsky
Publio – Lluís Calvet i Pey
Leontina – Kezia Bienek
Lucio/Fulvio – André Henriques

Opera Rara Chorus

Britten Sinfonia
Carlo Rizzi


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 11 May, 2023
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Opera Rara is justly noted for its revival of rare nineteenth-century repertoire particularly, as here, when presented in a new critical edition of the score. In this case Donizetti’s relatively early L’esule di Roma – premiered at Naples in 1828 – was presented in its version for La Scala later that year, in which a prison scene for the exile of the title, Settimio, was newly incorporated. That gave this fairly brief work somewhat more dramatic depth. But despite the claims made for the opera in the programme, in terms of some structural innovations – for example Donizetti’s break with convention by concluding Act One with an intimate (if still emotionally charged) terzetto rather than a grand finale for the whole ensemble – and despite a sympathetic performance, it didn’t really set any theatrical fires ablaze.

Carlo Rizzi and the Britten Sinfonia set the scene with the quietly tense throbbing of the prelude, a mood that generally prevailed throughout the whole of the first Act to mirror the troubled feelings of the main characters. That opened with Nicola Alaimo’s grainy ruminations as the Roman senator Murena, wracked with guilt over the (unspecified) false charges he made against Settimio for his own gain, causing the latter’s exile. No further details about that are given – it is not clear whether Murena had some personal vendetta against him, or if he simply exercised a convenient opportunity irrespective of Settimio’s identity. But it gives rise to the central conflict of the narrative in that Settimio was in love with Murena’s daughter, Argelia, but she is now betrothed to Publio, hailed by the chorus for his recent triumph in Sarmatia.

Settimio returns in secret, but he and Argelia recognise each other, and he reveals the evidence showing that he was the innocent victim of Murena’s conspiracy. Even though Argelia destroys the document in a bid to save her father, and in remorse Murena offers to assist her and Settimio to escape, the latter resolutely faces execution, presumably rather than distress the woman he loves by causing her father to be punished if he were to be revealed as the instigator of the charges against him. Just as operas of the Romantic age of the nineteenth-century are sometimes criticised for their improbably heroic women who willingly and passively undergo any amount of suffering in the cause of virtue and honour, here is a man whose unyielding, forbearing attitude is little examined within the libretto, and so remains rather unbelievable and two dimensional in his inscrutable motivations. He is miraculously saved from death when thrown to the lions, as the beast recognises him from a previous encounter when Settimio saved it (the story of Androcles and the Lion is specifically a source of inspiration) – a leo ex machina if not a deus ex machina, and comically unlikely. Murena is also spared punishment as it is explained that the Emperor (Tiberius) pardons his transgression, although it is not shown or described before this point that Murena does confess his crime. The concision of the work – especially its libretto – results in a drama of underdeveloped characters and a narrative sequence that assumes certain things have happened without their being confirmed or shown. Paradoxically that makes the opera seem long-winded as the music sets a linear plot without advancing the action much for quite long periods of time, without the diversions and surprising twists of its opera seria forebears, to which it still owes much musically.

After the sombre, but lucid account of Act One, dominated by male voices (including that of the otherwise reliable Opera Rara Chorus, where the female parts came over only softly) the more dramatically alert second Act prompted more vivid colour and alacrity from Rizzi and the orchestra, particularly for Alaimo’s highly charged mad scene as Murena disintegrates mentally – a prototype of the form which Donizetti (and later composers of Italian opera) would go on to perfect in future operas, usually for female characters. Alaimo asserted magnificent control and coherence over the stuttering music written for his character, making this scene one of the climaxes of the performance. Sergey Romanovsky – making his debut with Opera Rara – sustained a monochrome mellifluousness, in keeping with his role’s steadfastness that doesn’t admit much variety or nuance, but which nevertheless needs, at the least, a reasonably light bel canto fluency which it certainly received here. Argelia is a similarly uncomplicated, underdeveloped dramatic role, but Albina Shagimuratova brought crisp and expressive precision to her coloratura, ending with the sparkle of the concluding rondo which she led cheerfully.

The remaining parts were competently taken, both music and drama requiring comparatively little of them – Publio is somewhat the more significant as Argelia’s would-be spouse, but Lluís Calvet i Pey’s cool, dispassionate performance didn’t detract from the central web of troubled relationships between her, her father, and Settimio. A fine performance, then, but even with some accomplished music, it didn’t persuade that this opera is a masterpiece or one whose general neglect since Donizetti’s life is unjustified.

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