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Gaetano Donizetti: La Favorite
Elīna Garanca (Léonor de Guzman), Matthew Polenzani (Fernand), Mariusz Kwiecien (Alphonse XI), Mika Kares (Balthazar), Joshua Owen Mills (Don Gaspar), Elsa Benoit (Inès), Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera, Sören Eckhoff (chorus master), Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera, Karel Mark Chichon (conductor), Amélie Niermeyer (stage director), Alexander Müller-Elmau (set designer), Kirsten Dephoff (costume designer), Michael Bauer (lighting designer), Ramses Sigl (choreographer), Tiziano Mancini (video director)
Recorded live at the National Theatre, Munich (31 October-6 November, 2016) – 157’
2 DVDs Deutsche Grammophon 000440 073 5358 5 – Subtitles in French, German, English, Spanish – Booklet notes in English, French, German

This live performance from the Bavarian State Opera is exceptionally fine as a musical experience but visually and dramatically the production blunts one’s enjoyment at every turn.

Karel Mark Chichon gets off to a terrific start with an overture that is both brooding and stately during which we see a man in a nondescript business suit meeting a woman in a pantsuit and at a moment when the music sweeps to a climax, they kiss. These people turn out to be the king’s mistress, Léonor, and a novice monk, Fernand. The unit set features bland grey panels that move about, with at times a minimal indicator of the various locales specified in the libretto. At times we glimpse large-scale religious imagery (somewhat kitschy) through the grey mesh which come to life as the figures depicted turn out to be real people. This and other visual aspects of the production are far more vivid in the video than they were in the theatre, even from row five. (I attended a performance July 26, 2017). This does not help make the production any more compelling, however.

Both Elīna Garanca and Matthew Polenzani are in stellar vocal shape throughout. Their performances are models of bel canto style combined with heartfelt feeling when the stage director decides not to impose her own random acts of regie. The opera (like so many) focuses on the ecstasies and agonies of illicit love as expressed particularly in the work’s two most familiar arias (her ”O mon Fernand” and his ”Ange si pur”) which are among many fine moments.

Mariusz Kwiecien is saddled with a one-dimensional portrayal of the king as an impulsive man-child. His voice has a couple of minor dry patches at first, but overall he gives a distinguished performance of a mercurial character whose motives are not always clear.

The fourth lead role is that of Balthazar, the head of the monastery Fernand leaves and then returns to at the end, after discovering that his new wife has been the king’s mistress.

Mika Kares, who looks to be about seven feet tall, is commanding both physically and vocally. He is garbed in an overcoat throughout, while the monks (and male courtiers) wear ordinary modern business suits.

As if to counteract the blandness of the set and costumes, director Amélie Niermeyer has devised startling bits of stage action, such as when Léonor’s confidant, Inès, straddles Fernand and makes him feel her breasts while Léonor looks on with obvious delight. At other times central characters display intimate feelings to one another while in the presence of monks or courtiers who squirm with discomfort as a result. There is a lot of stage business involving the use of chairs, another tired and pointless cliché in contemporary stagecraft.

Since La Favorite is a grand opera written for Paris there is the obligatory ballet. However, we have no dancing in this production. During the sweeping music Léonor and the king are watching a film (we see only its flickering reflection) during which the king guides her hand to his crotch. This is followed by an enactment of oral sex, after which the king becomes emotionally involved with the film to the point of tears while Léonor laughs at his naïve involvement. Later, when the king awards Fernand with a medal, he pins it directly on to his naked chest. In the subsequent wedding scene, Léonor (in a black gown) and Fernand are shoved and harassed during the wedding chorus. After the big revelation that Fernand has just married the king’s mistress Léonor, stripped to her slip, is pelted with lilies upon which she subsequently expires.

This performance is well worth repeated listening. Repeated watching has only diminishing rewards.

Michael Johnson




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