The Royal Opera – Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal

Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal [Concert performance; sung in French]

Zayda – Vesselina Kasarova
Dom Sébastien – Giuseppe Filianoti
Dom Juam de Sylva – Alastair Miles
Abayaldos – Simon Keenlyside
Camoëns – Carmelo Corrado Caruso
Dom Henrique – Robert Gleadow
Dom Antonio / First Inquisitor – John Upperton
Second Inquisitor – Lee Hickenbottom
Third Inquisitor – John Bernays
Ben-Sélim – Andrew Slater
Dom Luis – Martyn Hill
Soldier – Nigel Cliffe

Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 13 September, 2005
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Revivals of rarely performed operas, particularly those seldom seen since their initial flush of performances can elicit feelings of both expectation and foreboding in equal measure. Too often there are very good reasons why pieces, even those by well-known composers, have lain dormant and unheard. Occasionally, some arias are known and these offer hope that the rest of the piece might be of similar quality, but too frequently one learns that genuine deficiencies are the reason for limited performance history.

Sometimes though, there can be surprises and so it was here. “Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal” is late Donizetti, and is an opera composed in a style to please the ‘Grand French Opera’ enthusiasms prevalent at the time – ballets, exotic locations, big gestures, and the potential for grandiose stage effects.

But whilst this opera has many later-unfashionable traits of, it also shows that Donizetti’s musical language was continuing to develop in new directions and, in particular, the pointers to early and middle Verdi are striking. The plot is reminiscent of Verdi’s to-come “Don Carlos”. There are religious wars – Portuguese crusades against the Muslims of Morocco under the leadership of the eponymous young and naïve ruler – together with love triangles, fraternal bonds between soldiers, political betrayals, international intrigues, and machiavellian plots by the Grand Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church. What more could you want?

The basic story centres round the love of a Moroccan princess, Zayla, for the Portuguese King Dom Sébastien. He saves her from execution at the hands of the inquisition and exiles her to her father in Morocco, Ben-Sélim. She becomes betrothed to the jealous Abayaldos, who is leading the Moroccans against the Portuguese crusaders. Zayla saves the unrecognised King in his moment of defeat, but as a result must marry Abayaldos. When the King returns home he finds his throne usurped by his uncle, Dom Antonio, who is a puppet of the Grand Inquisitor, Dom Juam de Sylva, who is plotting to place Philip II of Spain on the Portuguese throne. Even when Zayla and the faithful poet-soldier Camoëns reveal the plots, the perpetrators gain the upper hand. The lovers plunge to a watery grave, Dom Antonio forfeits the throne, and the Inquisitor’s plans are apparently successful.

The music is as attractive as any that Donizetti wrote, and under Mark Elder’s careful and poised baton the distinctive and exotic colours of the score were revealed in all their splendour. Striking were the ballet with oriental bells, the funeral procession for the supposedly dead King, and the grand confrontation between soldiers, populace and inquisition that ended Act 3. There were also some startling changes of mood and key, often underpinned in the lower string parts. The opera is more through-composed than usual for operas of this period – a fact that Elder was careful to observe by moving the drama forward even at the end of potentially applause-generating moments. The Royal Opera House Orchestra was on fine form, bar a few horn mishaps, and the musicians seemed to be enjoying themselves, as did the chorus who gave lusty contributions throughout.

Many of the soloists were first-rate too. In the title role Giuseppe Filianoti revealed a slightly reedy but very fluid Italianate voice with some ‘ping’ on the top; rather well suited to this type of music. He managed to capture the naivety of the character; not for him the flamboyant operatic gesturing that some other up-and-coming tenors might deliver. I hope we hear more of him in similar repertoire.

Sadly there seemed to be little chemistry between the two lovers – but I think this was perhaps more the fault of Vesselina Kasarova. She is a rather puzzling artist. Blessed with a voice of some beauty and excellent technique she is often guilty, as here, of delivering her music in a rather artificial and mannered way. Her tone is quite ‘covered’, and thus she needs to work harder on her words – but there is a lack of light and shade. Sorrow, love, determination and anger are all voiced in very much the same tone and there sometimes seems little attempt at dramatic characterisation. She also lacks the throwaway quality that you want of a coloratura – her body language and movement makes it all seem so effortful, which makes it harder to become involved in her performance and the predicament of her character.

When these performances were originally announced (this one reviewed was the second of two, the first having been on the 10th), one of the chief attractions was the return of the Italian baritone Renato Bruson in the role of Camoëns. He apparently withdrew on health grounds some days before the performances, although Royal Opera appears to have not made this widely known. He was replaced by Carmelo Corrado Caruso, who has a big voice if one slightly lacking in focus or edge, but who made his presence felt in difficult circumstances.

Simon Keenlyside made much of the jealous Abayaldos, injecting drama into his utterances, which were nevertheless delivered in beautiful burnished tones throughout. Also strong was Alastair Miles’s Grand Inquisitor, although his voice is perhaps rather too noble and ‘nice-sounding’ for such a despicable character, although he did much to get these aspects of his role over in careful use of gesture and words.

The many small parts were well taken. Mention should be made of Robert Gleadow, whose self-sacrificing Dom Henrique made his presence felt in the few lines he sang before dying to save his King. I expect (and hope) we shall hear more of him.

This was a very satisfying evening, and certainly it was fun to hear a piece which might prove hard to stage but which has much of interest in it. Those who missed the performances will be able to hear “Dom Sébastien” on CD, the two performances having been recorded by Opera Rara. For Donizettians a must – for others well worth investigating.

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