It's the 14th Century story of a love triangle, involving a married king, his mistress and the would-be monk turned warrior who falls in love with the mistress without having a clue about her royal connections.
The Donizetti composition, performed in four acts is about to play out on the Wortham Center stage, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.
La Favorite, a bel canto opera which can be done in Italian or French — and Houston is doing it in French — is no madcap French farce as might be indicated by the first sentence, but falls more to the somber side of opera. Interwoven with the love story is all manner of political intrigue since the time setting is during the political turmoil of a Moorish invasion of Spain.
The king wants to divorce his queen and marry his mistress Léonor (the celebrated mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton) but knows this will be opposed by the queen's powerful father, Balthazar. Fernand (international star Lawrence Brownlee, a tenor known for his bel canto roles) The monk who falls in love with Leonor, doesn't know about her connection to the king. She tells Fernand that they can never be together — without saying why — and secures for him a place in the army — where he is so successful, he is lauded by the king.
Fernand, apparently better at fighting than honoring vows of celibacy, defeats the Moors and is called before the king who asks him what he can do to reward him. It's when Fernand points out Léonor and says he wants to marry her that everything goes downhill for all involved from there.
South African-born baritone Jacques Imbrailo, who is known for his break-thorough performance Britten's Billy Budd at Glyndebourne in 2010, sings the role of King of Castille Alphonse XI, who is often portrayed as a straight ahead bad guy, but is not in this production, Imbrailo says.
"He’s very very ill; he's got a leg brace on. So he already feels a bit emasculated because of that. His wife, we never see her in the opera apart from the funeral; she's also ill and dying. He really cares for her but he's also found a new young beautiful person in Léonor and in a sense he's clinging on to this last bit of beauty and health because he's deteriorating; his wife is deteriorating," Imbrailo says. "So it's out of desperation he's clinging on to this mistress and why he's willing to give up his people and his crown for Léonor."
"The way we're playing it is much more rounded and makes him a real person. He's not just sleazy or the standard baddie. He's probably morally not the greatest guy, but he really loves and he really feels and he's got his own struggles."
Imbrailo grew up singing in a boys choir in South Africa. "I went for an audition through a dare." His first language is Afrikaans, his second English. As he got older, he studied law, keeping up with singing lessons as a hobby. But he says he got bored with the law and his singing teacher convinced him to take singing seriously.
"So I did a sort of truncated music degree in South Africa and auditioned to go to London for post-grad singing. One thing led to another; I joined the Young Artists program at Covent Garden and since then I've been freelancing." He now lives in the UK. This is, he says, he first "biggish" bel canto role. "And I really love singing it."
There's one last minute substitution in the opera's line-up. HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers will conduct after the planned conductor Christophe Rousset withdrew on January 17 for personal reasons.
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Bel canto is known for its fast-paced singing, especially tricky in an aria. And La Favorite is known to include some of the most challenging arias ever. "The arias tend to be extremely lyrical which is lovely to sing. It asks for good healthy singing. Sometime in other forms you can get away with not particularly singing so well but in bel canto you can’t really hide. You have to be in top form.
"I love the very first aria I sing," Imbrailo says. "It’s very beautiful You hear a bit of the longing for Léonor in the music and then the last aria I sing as well when he hands her over to Fernand. Even though he turns bitter after it and almost malicious after it, it's not just a mistress he cheaply lets go. It's somebody that he cares for deeply. It breaks him in a sense. So the cruelty that comes after in some sense is from a place of broken heartedness rather than just cruelty from a malicious man."
"But the best music is certainly reserved for the mezzo and the tenor [Baron and Brownlee]," he says. "Especially in Act IV; it's heartbreaking; the two of them sing it like you would not believe."
Performances are scheduled for January 24 through February 9 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Thursday and 2 p.m. on Sundays 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.