La Favorite, UCL Opera, Theatre Royal Stratford East, March 2016Posted on 17 March 2016
Donizetti’s La Favorite, once far more widely performed than it is today, is a triumph for UCOpera, who have brought this unfairly neglected work to stage in its original French version.
The story is straightforward enough: a young novice monk, Fernand is rejected from the monastery after falling in love with a lady named Léonor, not knowing her to be the king’s mistress. Unable to fully return his love, she obtains a military commission for him, and after conquering the king’s enemies he returns to claim his reward. The king, having been warned by monastery superior Balthazar to renounce his mistress and reinstate his legal consort, is presented with a way out of his difficulties, and approves her marriage to Fernand. He, eventually realising the situation, rejects her, breaks his sword at the king’s feet, and returns to the monastery. In the final act after he takes his vows, Léonor appears once more, disguised as a new novice, and redeemed by his love and forgiveness she dies in his arms.
Act IV is one of Donizetti’s great achievements, and the opera’s ominous, brooding overture influenced Verdi’s later Forza del destino, so this is music not to be missed. Director John Ramster has used the depth of the stage in this elegant theatre to create a feeling of spaciousness for both court and monastery, helped by the ‘vanishing perspective’ of Louis Carver’s designs and Joshua Pharo’s subtly changing lighting, and he allows the singers give their best uncluttered by irrelevances.
French is not the easiest language to sing, but Kevin Greenlaw, showing restrained nobility as the king, produced fine diction, as did the rest of the cast. Excellent bass authority from Tristan Hambleton as Balthazar the father superior, and a wonderful portrayal of Léonor by mezzo-soprano Catherine Backhouse. Her confidante Inès, very well sung by soprano Ella Joy, is arrested before she can deliver the message to Fernand explaining her mistress’s awkward past, and Ms Backhouse delivered a lovely Act III soliloquy in which she worries about bringing her lover a dowry of dishonour. David Woodward as a strong, open-hearted tenor gave the honest Fernand a happy, naïve countenance, and his Act IV duet with Léonor was a highlight of the performance.
Excellent contributions from the well-disciplined and well-staged chorus, and UCL student Sam Peterson provided fine vocal and stage presence as the king’s officer Don Gaspar. Under the baton of Charles Peebles the orchestra played beautifully after a slightly wobbly start, providing sensitive support to the singers. Congratulations to UCOpera for once again staging a seldom-performed opera despite the temporary closure of their usual theatre.
Performances continue on March 18, 19 — for details click here.