Donizetti: Belisario

BBCSO/Sir Mark Elder

Barbican, London, 4th November 2012 4 stars

BelisarioAlthough it comes on the heels of his oft-performed Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti's Belisario is rarely performed in major venues outside of Italy despite its obvious strengths as a work bursting with musical and dramatic delights. This period of composition in Donizetti's oeuvre is marked by deeply felt, elegant melodies allayed with a virile and at times frenetic energy. Although local color plays a diminished role in this opera, it is still noticeably present, especially in the choruses. Of course, Italian operatic convention of this period demands an overabundance of mimetic gesture, and the music–when performed well–expectedly provides a generous amount of mental and bodily stimuli for the audience willing to listen.

First performed in Venice in 1836, the opera explores the tensions between individual wills and the collective power of the state by telling the story of the Byzantine general Belisarius–famous for partly solidifying Justinian's rule over the defunct Western Roman Empire–and the effects of his jaded-and-bitter-but-soon-to-be-repentant wife's machinations on his daughter and son. Believing Belisario to be responsible for the death of their son, his wife, Antonina, falsely accuses him of treason and in turn the general is imprisoned and blinded; his daughter, Irene, eventually restores her father's reputation upon his death, when she discovers that his supposedly dead son is actually Alamiro, a captured soldier with an uncanny devotion to Belisario.

As Belisario, Nicola Alaimo was every bit the powerful, commanding general he needed to be. His stage presence is immense (along with his physical stature) and he sings with a voice to match. It possesses a considerable amount of weight, but not too much to stop him from singing floridly when necessary, a happy casting choice since bel canto revivals unfortunately see lighter baritones singing beyond their means more often that not. His intonation at first and perhaps once or twice more during the course of the evening fluctuated towards the flat end of the spectrum, but he redeemed himself by singing with an admirable amount of style: he enunciated the words precisely on-top of a strong and consistent legato, and when need be declaimed with verve.

Russell Thomas was a thrilling Alamiro, and did his best to bring the excitement of bel canto to the stage; although one of his high Cs in his Act II "Trema, Bizansio" was a bit lax, he sang the rest of the aria with an excellent sense of immediacy that communicated his thirst for vengeance very well. On the whole, his timbre is bright yet colored with a reddish hue above E-natural, perfect for communicating the bolder emotions that characterize the role. Indeed, his duet with Alaimo in Act I was excellent, and the two singers deserve accolades for the sense of kinship communicated through their excellent use of phrasing and dynamics.

Although her entrance aria was lackluster and a bit off-point (especially the "cadenza," which was more of a quick scale than a true bel canto display of virtuosity), Camilla Roberts proved that she could absolutely hold her own as the loving and devoted Irene. Her voice alone recalls the great interpreter (often annoyingly overlooked) Gabriella Tucci; despite her stylistic oversight, she had the perfect blend of fullness and point after her shaky start, and shined brightly in her duet with Alaimo. Alastair Miles was a commanding if un-enunciated Giustiniano, while Peter Hoare was an appropriately shady Eutropio.

Now, that leaves just about everyone save Joyce El-Khoury, who played Antonina. In order to sing bel canto successfully, there must be a sensitive feel for the way the text and music work together, a precision in executing both, and full, vivacious life running through every note. It's not something that can be taught or faked and thus is often missing from modern bel canto performances, even those produced at institutions of the highest caliber. El-Khoury, however, manages to bring all this and more to the stage: she is not only stunningly beautiful and thus has a profound presence on-stage, but communicates with a seemingly inexhaustible amount of artistic gravitas. Her phrasing, dynamics, and pure grain of voice coupled with a seemingly innate feel for the text made for an outstanding interpretation of the role that will not be soon forgotten.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sir Mark Elder performed very well, although the overture did tend towards the flat side of things more than once. Of course this slight intonation issue was well overshadowed by the expert care Elder took in choosing correct tempi. His dynamic range was excellent and the boldness with which he approached the forte moments (the final Act I sextet, for example) was much appreciated. The BBC Singers provided a number of rousing choruses.

This was happy collaboration between the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Opera Rara using the new critical edition of the score, and I can wholeheartedly say that it will be an album to watch for; I'll certainly be buying it.

By Michael Migliore

Photos: Piper Anselmi Artists Management