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Donizetti, Gaetano: Dom Sebastien (CD) Opera Rara 2007

Donizetti: Dom Sébastien (CD)


“The stand-out performance, though, is from Simon Keenlyside, whose charisma, sense of text and sheer vocal beauty are impeccable.” Dominic McHugh, musicalcriticism.com

Opera Disc of the Month: Opera mag, May 2007

Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal
Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Mark Elder
Zayda : Vesselina Kasarova
Dom Sébastien : Giuseppe Filianoti
Dom Juam de Sylva : Alistair Miles
Abayaldos : Simon Keenlyside
Camoëns : Carmelo Corrado Caruso
Dom Henrique : Robert Gleadow
Dom Antonio/First Inquisitor : John Upperton
Second Inquisitor : Lee Hickenbottom
Ben-Sélim : Andrew Slater
Dom Luis : Martyn Hill
Soldier : Nigel Cliffe
Third Inquisitor : John Bernays
The Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
Label: Opera Rara
Code: ORC33
Recorded: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 10 and 13 September 2005. Click here for details and reviews
Released: Released in the UK April 2007, in the USA 8 May 2007.
Number of discs: 3

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From the Opera Rara catalogue

Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal

This year represents both a continuing celebration of the beauty and drama of the bel canto repertoire and an acknowledgement of the unique relationships we have built with our artistic partners. Our work with the Royal Opera House flourishes as we present a ground-breaking recording of Donizetti’s rarely heard epic, Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal, starring Vesselina Kasarova, Simon Keenlyside and Giuseppe Filianoti, conducted by Mark Elder.


Donizetti’s last-composed opera, a somber five-act masterpiece given at the Paris Opera in November 1843, is brought vividly to life in this live recording from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.


Few figures in European history fire the imagination more than Don Sebastian of Portugal. Although he was almost certainly killed at the

Battle of Alcazar-Quivir in Morocco in 1578, tales of his survival persisted for centuries. Popular imagination simply could not accept that God should have allowed such a hero to perish so prematurely and so disastrously. Romantic literature spun extravagant tales around him, and in 1843 he became the subject of Donizetti’s last-composed opera, a sombre five-act masterpiece given at the Paris Opéra. The action transports us to the corpse-strewn field of Alcazar-

Quivir; to the great square of Lisbon where, by night, Sebastian witnesses his own mock-funeral; to the subterranean halls of the Inquisition. And we watch aghast as he meets a death far more bizarre than that which history would wish upon him. Death marches… great rolling ensembles… explorative orchestral effects…

Donizetti was convinced that Dom Sébastien was his greatest achievement. The sheer logistics of staging such a work have militated against its wide performance, but we are convinced that this new recording will trigger a new recognition of its value. It will certainly set you, as listener, constructing gorgeous stage-pictures in your mind…

What the critics say

Geoff Brown for The Times, March 30, 2007

Four out of five stars

Donizetti’s last opera, this: a five-act epic about the crusading King of Portugal, uneven but often inspired, equally stamped with a baleful grand sweep and those trademark jog-trotting rhythms. Lovely stuff to explore in this live concert performance (Covent Garden, 2005). The star is Simon Keenlyside (as an Arab chief); others can be overtheatrical, but it’s better to be hammy than dead. On-the-ball conducting from Elder.

Extract from a review by Serena Fenwick for Musical Pointers

“It calls for singers of the highest calibre, and Opera Rara have assembled just such a cast for this recording. All the principals excel themselves. Simon Keenlyside turns Abayaldos into force to be reckoned with and Alistair Miles is surely the most sinister of all Grand Inquisitors. Amongst the smaller roles John Upperton (Dom Antonio) caught my ear, with absolutely clear diction.

Mark Elder lovingly leads the orchestra and chorus through the big ensembles building a magnificent fullness of sound. The ballet sequences were recorded separately, but the sound engineers have balanced the acoustic to match seamlessly.”

Dominic McHugh for Musicalcriticism.com

Four and a half stars out of five

“…Mark Elder emerges as the hero of this new recording, which is based on two live concert performances of the work at the opening of the Royal Opera’s season in September 2005 (the ballet music was recorded separately at Cadogan Hall). He draws from the score both the French sensuality and the Italian thrust; bloodletting, intrigues, romance and executions are all perfectly evoked with the help of the Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House at their most dazzling. He even manages to make the rather abrupt ending (one of the work’s major flaws) sound logical and integrated, and, as ever, proves the ideal accompanist to singers. And at last, we can appreciate Donizetti as a fine orchestrator.

Giuseppe Filianoti is perfectly cast in the title role. Donizetti tailored the role for a tenor who was charismatic and able to communicate a range of emotions but was no longer able to perform a string of coloratura arias; instead, he poured all the character’s feelings into one big aria in Act Two and gives him a more narrative role elsewhere. Filianoti fits the bill with ease, singing with Italianate beauty through most of his part.

The stand-out performance, though, is from Simon Keenlyside, whose charisma, sense of text and sheer vocal beauty are impeccable. Vesselina Kasarova comes across considerably better in the recording than she did in the concerts, where I found her under-projected. As the only female character in the piece, Zayda, she excels in adding some much-needed vocal contrast and copes with the wide tessitura superbly. Equally convincing are the solid contributions of Carmelo Corrado Caruso as Camoëns, ex-Royal Opera Young Artist Robert Gleadow (in commanding voice) as Dom Henrique and particularly Alastair Miles as the chilling Grand Inquisitor, Dom Juam de Sylva.

Perhaps the heroine in all of this is Mary Ann Smart, who pieced together the work for the critical Donizetti edition and allowed it to be presented in its entirety for the first time in many years. Without doubt, the clarity of her text is partly what enabled Elder to create such a compelling performance for this indispensable recording (the best opera recording of the year?).

Hugh Canning for The Sunday Times, 22 April 2007

This is an edited live recording of concert performances at Covent Garden in September 2005. There is little evidence of an audience here, but the performance is vividly atmospheric, thanks to Elder’s pacy, theatrical conducting and some lusty, if not always ingratiating, solo singing. The work itself is a revelation — an epic five-act grand opera in which Donizetti out-Meyerbeers Meyerbeer with this yarn of the doomed Christian king of Portugal pursuing a catastrophic confrontation with Islam. Giuseppe Filianoti’s tight-voiced Sébastien, Vesselina Kasarova’s blowsy Zayda and Carmelo Corrado Caruso’s blustery Camoëns make heavy weather of the French text, but Simon Keenlyside’s virile-sounding Abayaldos makes ample amends.

John Allison for Opera, May 2007

Disc of the Month

Ever since the Royal Opera opened its 2005-6 season with two thrilling concert performances of Dom Sébastien, the promised recording has been impatiently awaited. Now that it’s here, it stands out as one of Opera Rara’s most indispensable enterprises – and that is saying something. Performed in Mary Ann Smart’s 2003 critical edition, which solves some particularly messy editorial issues, and presented with a door-stopping booklet that includes Jeremy Commons’s illuminating notes and a brief performance history by Tom Kaufman, this is a revelatory release.

Dom Sébastien is every bit as distinctive as you would expect of the last of the composer’s 70 or so operas. Written in 1843 for the Paris Opera, it is a grand opera in five acts complete with ballet (the ballet music, not performed at Covent Garden where most of this was taped live, is included here, although inevitably in slightly different acoustics). The premiere featured a cast of 600, not counting the horses. The libretto is by Eugene Scribe, full of effects without causes and crude even by the mixed standards of Paris’s chief operatic scribbler (both Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer turned it down before Donizetti set it). And as Donizetti was already showing signs of syphilitic instability, certain unevenness is hardly surprising; the ludicrously quick denouement, which sees the escaping lovers Zayda and Sébastien killed when their rope ladder is cut, has to be one of the least satisfactory in all opera.

One observer called it a ‘funeral procession in five acts’, and it is certainly true that funereal music is threaded throughout this darksome score. Yet that is also its strength, especially when the work is shaped with as much conviction and drive as Mark Elder – a conductor wonderfully alert to the idiom – brings to it here. The overture begins with four veiled side drums, and the centrepiece of Act 3 is a dramatic masterstroke in which Dom Sébastien witnesses his own funeral procession. It may have seemed unnecessarily gloomy to audiences of the day, but from our perspective this sombre work’s tinta is astonishing above all for its anticipation of Don Carlos.

The two operas, each the most monumental its composer ever wrote, have much in common. Beyond their parallel five-act structures and striking orchestration, both feature 16th-century Iberian settings complete with sinister inquisitors and reckless young royals who wreaked havoc on their people. King Philip of Spain, who is at the centre of Verdi ‘s opera but just a shadowy presence behind Donizetti’s scenario, may have disposed of his feeble son, Carlos, but could do nothing to stop his nephew, Sebastiao of Portugal, crippling a proud sea-faring nation with a disastrous crusade against Morocco.

Not surprisingly, Scribe took huge liberties with history. Mad King Sebastião inspired legends that resonated down the centuries through Portuguese history, despite his having been culpable for one of the greatest disasters in that country’s history. A fanatical crusader, he was responsible for the cross and crescent facing each other at Alcazar el Kebir in 1578; only 100 out of his army of 20,000 survived, and many Portuguese families were wiped out. Yet few among his people could accept that God would not have protected such a zealous figure, and this gave rise to the rumours that the’ hidden king’ was away on pilgrimage and would eventually reappear. The cult of ‘Sebastianism’ was still alive in the 19th century when Dom Sébastien was premiered: what must audiences have made of the work at its first performance in Italian, at Lisbon’s Sao Carlos in 1845? The character of Camoens, also fascinating, is slipped anachronistically into Scribe’s scenario: Luiz Vaz de Camões was author of The Lusiads, the great epic poem immortalizing Portugal’s voyages of discovery, in particular Vasco da Gama’s expedition around the Cape to India in 1497-8. When Camões followed da Gama’s route half a century later, he became the first European artist to cross the equator.

In spite of a certain topicality today – Dom Sébastien ‘s chief antagonist is the Islamic freedom-fighter Abayaldos, and jihad is seldom far from anyone’s lips the modern fascination with this work comes from musical hindsight. Verdi had a lot of catching up to do with the more extraordinary pages of Donizetti ‘ s score, and even Mahler purloined one of its most melancholy phrases for his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. So it is fitting that the orchestra (playing without vibrato and including natural horns) and chorus are, along with the galvanizing Elder, the chief heroes of this enterprise.

The cast may lack Francophone singers, but it is a fine one. Giuseppe Filianoti brings a pungent tenor – if few reserves – to the title role (one unfortunate, yodelled note on the first night has been patched), and Simon Keenlyside provides strong, hectoring opposition as Abayaldos. Even in concert, Vesselina Kasarova, who sings with vibrant, dusky tone, supplies spirited presence as the Moorish princess Zayda, tom between Islam and Christianity, or at least the men representing these opposing sides. Alastair Miles is chillingly resonant as the grand inquisitor Dom Juam, and among the smaller parts Robert Gleadow makes a potent mark as Dom Henrique. The baritone Carmelo Corrado Caruso – great name, but it would be even better if he were a tenor – is appropriately lyrical as the national poet. In an opera whose most notable music is generally the ensembles, Camoens’s aria ‘0 Lisbonne, 0 ma patrie!’ does indeed stand out: it may have long been better known than the work as a whole, but perhaps this recording will help to correct that imbalance.

Anthony Holden for the Observer, April 29, 2007

Taken from a concert performance at the Royal Opera House, this is a welcome airing for Donizetti’s last opera. The sheer logistics of staging its account of the premature death of Sebastian, one of the fascinating mythic figures of mid-European folklore, has prevented it gaining a foothold in the repertoire. But this titanic account from the ROH under Mark Elder, boasting such superb soloists as Simon Keenlyside and Bulgarian mezzo Vesselina Kasarova, fires the imagination.

Michael Kennedy, Sunday Telegraph, 29 April 2007

Four stars out of five

Donizetti’s last opera is a sombre work, in many ways anticipating Verdi’s ‘Don Carlo’. This recording is from two concert performances given at Covent Garden last year. Mark Elder conducts with dramatic flair and reveals the work as a-masterpiece. Giuseppe Filianoti sings the tenor role of Sebastien lyrically, Vesselina Kasarova is impressive as the Moorish girl who loves him and Simon Keenlyside excels as an Arab chieftain. The documentation is superb, and the recording is sponsored by the Peter Moores Foundation.

Mundoclasico, 10 May 2007 (Raúl González Arévalo)

Translation by Ursula Turecek

Dom Sébastien – finally !

… Carmelo Corrado Caruso who stood in for Renato Bruson sang the part of „Camoëns“ worthily but his voice is not particularly attractive and it’s afflicted with a vibrato that may appear annoying despite of the fact that „O Lisbonne“ came off well. Much better Simon Keenlyside, one of the best baritones of his generation concerning the delicacy of his rendering and the magnificent articulation of the text: Abayaldos’s blazes of anger and the arrogance of his arias are marvellous.

I would not be surprised if this Dom Sébastien became the recordings of the year.

Michael Tanner, BBC Music Magazine, May issue

5 out of 5 for performance

4 out of 5 for sound

Dom Sebastien is the last of Donizetti’s prodigious output of operas, written in 1843 just before his descent into syphilitic insanity.   It is a large, serious work, though the libretto by Eugene Scribe is confused and the action implausible.   The music, though uneven, is impressive enough to make listening to this exemplary recording an experience which nothing else in Donizetti’s output would lead one to expect.

“The first thing one notices is the extraordinary authority of Mark Elder’s conducting, detailed but with a command of the grand sweep.   The cast is distinguished, even if some people might find Vesselina Kasarova’s voice in its present state an acquired taste, or one they’d rather not acquire.   Despite the near-gargling in her lower register, she can still produce quantities of coloratura with abandon, and she is an immense dramatic presence;  oddly this character Zayda is the sole woman in the large cast.   The centre of a great deal of male attention, she persuades me that she is worth it.   There can be no doubting the quality of all the male singers, most striking of all being Simon Keenlyside as the chief villain, the chieftain Abayaldos. Recording and lavish presentation do justice to this important addition to the catalogue.”

Tim Ashley for The Guardian, May 11, 2007

3 out of five stars

“A funeral procession in five acts” is how one critic described Dom Sébastien, Donizetti’s last opera, first performed in Paris in 1843. A terminal work in every sense, it deals with the futility and abuse of idealism in its ambivalent portrait of the eponymous Portuguese king, whose imperial ambitions lead only to catastrophe, yet whose comparatively liberal domestic policies are undermined by conspiracies between fundamentalist Christian and Muslim leaders. While working on the score, Donizetti began to exhibit symptoms of the tertiary syphilis that killed him five years later, and to which both the opera’s depressive atmosphere and its inspirational unevenness can be attributed.

Opera Rara’s recording was taped during concert performances at Covent Garden in 2005. There’s some blazing conducting from Mark Elder, but it needs a more consistent cast than the one we have here. Giuseppe Filianoti is the sympathetic king, while Simon Keenlyside is truly outstanding as the Muslim leader Abayaldos. Less successful are Alastair Miles as his Christian counterpart and Vesselina Kasarova, hopelessly mannered, as the put upon heroine Zayda.

William R Braun, Opera News, September 2007

Any recording of the rarity Dom Sebastien is self-recommending. It’s one of the most important works in nineteenth century opera, the final gasp of Donizetti’s hyperactive compositional career and an influence on Meyerbeer and Verdi. Yet it is seldom encountered in live performance. Opera Rara’s research has turned up no major professional performances between 1911 and 1955, then none further until 1984. (On the latter occasion, Opera Orchestra of New York dusted it off for local audiences, with Richard Leech in the tide role; OONY revived the opera once more in 2006.)

Written for the Paris Opera to a Scribe libretto, Dom Sebastien has the hallmarks of high grand opera style. There are fine instrumental inventions in the orchestra, including a clarinet ensemble with harp accompaniment and a luscious horn choir. Best of all for fans of the genre, Scribe provided one of those great, elemental confrontations for the central panel of the five acts. Here the deposed, formerly exiled titular king and one of his soldiers, both now reduced to begging, at first don’t recognize each other in a touching chance encounter. Then the king witnesses his own enormous funeral procession, after which his true identity is denied and he is rushed off to prison and the Inquisition. If you adore the coronation scene in Le Prophete or the auto-da-fe in Don Carlos, you’ll appreciate that this one came first. (To be sure, Scribe had offered the libretto to Meyerbeer before Donizetti, but it was not accepted.)

Operating under personal and professional handicaps, Donizetti did not consistently deliver his finest work. There isn’t anything approaching what we think of as music drama until late in Act II, when the African girl Zayda recognizes Dom Sebastien on a Moroccan battlefield, admits that she loves him and bravely defends him to her people. Donizetti – to his credit – was not trying to write a grab bag of unrelated numbers. But his large, panoramic spans of music require a certain flair and abandon from the interpreters.

Indeed, Dom Sebastien at heart needs to be a big, messy, smashing party and a fizzing night out. The performance here should have made more of an effect than it does. It is the right idea to produce the work as a concert event in front of an audience. Supposedly that was what happened at Covent Garden in 2005, when the present recording was made – but somewhere between the live show and the editing studio, Joan Crawford apparently went around with spot-cleaner after she sent the rugs out. If there was an audience, no evidence of it is left, and much of the performance is too careful, a feeling exacerbated by the clinical, un-atmospheric sonics. Most likely, a lot of this recording comes from a dress rehearsal. (Microphones are much in evidence in the booklet photos of the run-through.) At least by Act V, we get the sweep and specificity the score requires.

Conductor Mark Elder has not always found a way of papering over the generic places in this type of score the way Richard Bonynge can, but there are some good moments. It’s interesting to note how Elder has built on the interpretation he had for Sebastien’s Act II solo “Seul sur la terre” when he conducted it for an aria recital by Marcelo Alvarez in 2001. Next to the rhapsodic new version, with Giuseppe Filianoti as Sebastien, the earlier version seems a little blunt and sectionalized. But Elder does not yet have complete grasp of moments such as the Act III duet of Zayda and her chieftain Abayaldos (though in fairness, the editing may have something to do with this). As Abayaldos, Simon Keenlyside doesn’t offer as distinct a character as one expects from this artist, but he makes beautiful sounds. Zayda’s sympathetic father, Ben-Selim, is suitably warm and comforting in the voice of Andrew Slater. Dom Antonio, an Inquisitor with ideas of royal usurpation, is the nasal tenor John Upperton. Alastair Miles, the Grand Inquisitor, rises to the challenge of his big scene in front of Lisbon Cathedral. In the tide role, Filianoti’s tenor is often pleasing. But his heavy, full throated approach to high notes is glaringly modern and would have been a surprise to Donizetti.

There is only one female role among the dozen principals, but Donizetti’s writing for the men is so varied that listeners may well not notice. As Zayda, Vesselina Kasarova offers a voice in well-defined compartments, as if requiring some assembly. Still, these are enjoyable components. The weakest element of this recording is a miscalculation by Scribe and Donizetti. There is a huge ballet sequence, obligatory at the time, and we get twenty minutes of it here. It is placed far too early, in Act II, just when the epic story needs to start flying. Thus it is more of an impediment than a divertissement; presumably the idea was to make use of the African setting for this act as an opportunity for exotic color. To this end, there is a passage played on handbells that are struck rather than shaken. It gets your attention, but I can’t imagine ever listening to it again. The rest of the recording, however, hasn’t yet gone onto my shelves; I’m still listening.

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