Vivid and Enlivening
Donizetti's 'Maria di Rohan',
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL
Donizetti wrote Maria di Rohan for Vienna in 1843 following on from the success of Linda di Chamounix in the same city. But the two operas could not be more different. Whereas Linda, for all its mad scene, ends happily and is inflected with the openness of the mountains, Maria is darker and more concentrated. Its plot centres on a love triangle between a woman and two men, and Donizetti has ignored the weaknesses of the libretto to concentrate on the emotional turmoil between the three. The result is short, three acts lasting under two hours in total. When the opera was repeated in Paris some months later, Donizetti expanded the first half of the opera, adding further arias and creating a more varied musical experience.
It is in this latter version that the opera has become known, a version in which the final act differs rather in its darkness and concentration from what has come before. Now Opera Rara has revived the Vienna version for the first time in London. The company has recorded the Vienna version, along with the Parisian music as appendices, with Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova as Maria, Countess of Rohan, Spanish tenor Jose Bros as Riccardo, Count of Chalais and Christopher Purves as Enrico, Duke of Chevreuse. The same forces performed the opera in concert at London's Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 7 November 2009.
The opera is set at the court of Louis the Thirteenth of France. Act 1 starts almost in the middle of the story, rather than at the beginning. Maria is trying to get Riccardo to help as Enrico is about to be executed for fighting a duel and killing his opponent. We learn that Riccardo is an admirer of Maria's, and regards Enrico as a rival. He does not realise that Enrico and Maria are secretly married -- secretly, because Cardinal Richlieu is an enemy of Enrico's. There is much to-doing with duels, secret visits of Maria to Riccardo and Riccardo's rise to power and equally precipitous fall. For much of the opera Enrico seems to be rather a complaisant husband, only getting vicious when he is presented with a love letter from Riccardo to Maria (though Riccardo only wrote it because he though he was going to be killed in a duel). Well, you get the idea, I won't go on.
Donizetti concentrates on the three central characters, interested in the toils that they go through. All the remaining roles are all relatively small.
Maria (Krassimira Stoyanova) is a conflicted character. She is secretly married to one man (Enrico), in love with another (Riccardo) and only married Enrico because she was forced by her mother. Stoyanova sang Maria's music with a lovely firm spinto line. She has quite a bright, but expressive voice, without too much of a vibrato. Maria only really gets one showpiece number, in Act 1, and must spend most of her time suffering one anxiety or another. Stoyanova did this admirably, but I missed the dark and interesting tones that spinto sopranos of the past could have brought the role. Donizetti does not give the soprano that much to work with, so she needs to make each gesture tell. Stoyanova did not quite do this, for all her impassioned and passionate singing, she didn't quite bring out Maria's dark conflict.
As her lover, Riccardo, Jose Bros was similarly ideal of line. He too has quite a bright, rather elegant voice which negotiated Donizetti's lines quite admirably. He never really gets to be very impassioned about Maria, in fact one of his biggest arias is to his mother, who is ill in the next room. And he is almost fonder of his honour in a duel than he is of Maria. But there again, heroes do not have to be perfect. Riccardo and Maria don't get anything approaching a love duet in this version of the opera: their biggest musical moment is the end of Act 2, when Maria is worried about Riccardo being killed, and all he can think about is his honour and going off to duel.
The third point of the triangle is Enrico, Maria's husband (Christopher Purves). Purves was suffering from a cold but still managed to give good value in terms of Donizetti's musical line. Enrico is no blustering villain, and for much of the opera he is a loving and dutiful husband, unaware of Maria's fondness for a man who he regards as his saviour. (In Act 1, Riccardo does succeed in getting a pardon for Enrico.)
Under Mark Elder's powerful direction, Stoyanova, Bros and Purves gave a strong account of Donizetti's tormented triangle, making a good case for the brevity and impact of this version of the opera. No frills, few furbelows, but plenty of strong emotion. The ending is some indication of Donizetti's interest in the realism of human emotions. It is Riccardo who dies, killed by Enrico who fakes Riccardo's suicide; Enrico and Maria are left trapped in a troubled and loveless marriage.
The principals were admirably supported by Loic Felix, Brindley Sherratt, Graeme Broadbent, Christopher Turner and Riccardo Simonetti, playing courtiers and servants.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gave a good account of the score, providing some fine dramatic playing and some lovely solo moments. Even with the period instruments, there were moments when Mark Elder let rip and threatened to dominate the soloists, but this was a small price to pay for such a committed account of the opera. On paper, perhaps, the opera can appear a bit grim, but given such a vivid and enlivening account as this, we were gripped rather than depressed.
For the recording, Opera Rara will be giving us Donizetti's music for Paris as well. So by way of an encore, Stoyanova and Bros sang a duet from the Paris version, the closest that they came to melodic love music all evening.
The Vienna version of Maria di Rohan will probably always be overshadowed by the more varied Paris version, but Mark Elder and his cast made a strong case for this powerful, distilled version of the opera.
Copyright © 10 November 2009