If someone ever asked you to write an homage to “bel canto” opera, you'd probably write something very much like Gaetano Donizetti's La Favorite (1840). He certainly did.
La Favorite has all the requisite parts: flowing melody, relatively apt musical equivalence to what's going on in the drama, some gangbuster choruses, a ridiculous story, and starry roles for the principals.
Donizetti was the last of bel canto's Triple Threat that included Rossini and Bellini. Rossini had retired, Bellini had recently died, and Donizetti picked up the mantle. He had written some 65 operas before Favorite; was internationally famous because of Anna Bolena, The Elixir of Love, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Fille du Regiment; and was now the undisputed king of opera. Seven more operas followed Favorite, including his comic gem Don Pasquale (1843). By 1848 Donizetti would be dead from syphilis. Up-and-coming Giuseppe Verdi leaped into the void, simultaneously followed by Richard Wagner.
Far from the best of Donizetti, Favorite was one of Europe's most performed works. You can easily hear why in Houston Grand Opera's premiere production. It requires ringing voices in showcase roles for mezzo (Leonor, sung by the radiant Jamie Barton), tenor (Fernand, sung by reigning bel canto specialist Lawrence Brownlee), and baritone (King Alphonse, sung by Jacques Imbrailo). The story blatantly tweaks the blue noses with its sexual shenanigans, a topic dear to mid-19th-century theater-goers, yet manages to allow faith to creep in for last-minute salvation. Later, the French would have a field day with this earthy mingling, see Massenet's Thais or Saint-Saens' Samson and Delilah. Wagner was not far behind, witness Lohengrin and Tannhauser. But in 1840, this was pretty racy material even for Paris, where Favorite premiered. It was a sensation, helped no doubt by the ironic matching of plot to Parisian reality. The story tells of a King's mistress, and, wouldn't you know, the opera impresario who commissioned Donizetti was having an affair with the leading mezzo of the day. It was a heavenly match for the paparazzi. Everyone was talking about this new opera.
What we hear today, though, is musical history being born. You can actually tell where Verdi (and Wagner, too, though he was loathe to admit it) got inspiration for orchestration, plot, and character development. And there's plenty from music's past – hints from Bellini's Norma in the Druid-like priestly choruses, a rousing quintet motif from Donizetti's Lucia, a bubbly little tune that would be subtly transformed in Verdi's Ballo. The orchestra is heavier, more dominant and complex. Bel canto was dying because a more real musical version of life needed to be heard.
But pretty voices never go out of style. Unquestionably on the cusp of international stardom, mezzo Barton has a voice for the ages. Deep-dish and exceptionally plummy, her voice has power to spare and expression for days, I swear, at times, she hit notes lower than baritone Imbrailo and soared higher than soprano Elena Villalón (a beautifully sung Inez, courtier to Leonor). She is a force of nature, and if you saw her in HGO's Ring cycle, as a strikingly potent Waltraute in Gotterdammerung or haughty Fricka in Das Rheingold and Die Walkure, you've never forgotten her. In decades to come, you can tell those less fortunate that you heard Barton at the beginning.
In eager anticipation of Brownlee, an international tenor who's graced HGO in the past with sterling performances in Pearl Fishers, Barber of Seville, and La Centerentola, he entered, opened his mouth, and not much came out. It was as if a muffler had been put over his face. I turned to my companion and whispered, What happened to his voice? He possesses thrilling high C's and an agility to climb over any bel canto coloratura and claim it for his own. But he wasn't there, drowned out, no oomph. After intermission, HGO managing director Perryn Leech announced that Brownlee was suffering from the effects of this January weather and asked for our indulgence. Brownlee continued, but showed only periodic signs of his former glory. Personally, I think Barton could have sung both roles.
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This new production is a sad affair, over-directed by Kevin Newberry, with ravishing if inappropriate sets by Victoria Tzykun, gray-inspired costumes by Jessica Jahn, and drab lighting by DM Wood. Although originally set in a fairy-tale medieval Spain, an updating for Favorite is OK, if it means something. This was eye-catching, but meant nothing. The monastery walls were translucent scrims that rose halfway and stayed there, revealing a forest background whose gnarled trees, I hoped, would soon become alive and start throwing apples. Throughout, a huge hideous root was suspended overhead like a Chahouly chandelier. Why? Who knows. The costumes were mostly 1840s in silhouette, circa the date of Favorite's premiere, but then T-shirts and suspenders were also added to the mix. Don't ask.
But in the most glaring update of all, like a bone thrown to the “woke” culture, Leonor has to endure a pummeling from the patriarchy. It's not humiliating enough that she's exposed to her lover as a whore and mistress to the king. Oh, no! Now she has to be kicked, spat upon, smacked in the face, and stomped while writhing on the ground. It's so glaringly wrong that the opera never recovers. Here again is evidence of a director gone berserk. Can't these fools be stopped?
Favorite is low-rent Lucia. Rare, yes; good enough, but not great. This opera becomes necessary when singers can sing it. Barton can sing it; Brownlee can sing it (just not opening night). There's history in it, but there are also 70 other Donizetti works that are just as rare. In their day, some as big a hit as Favorite, but I'm not sure I want to see them. Most definitely not under the jaundiced eye of this stage director.
La Favorite continues at 2 p.m. Sunday, January 26; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 1; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, February 6; and 2 p.m. Sunday, February 9 at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. Sung in French with projected English translation. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $25-$270.