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Alfred the Great, King of the Anglo-Saxons, conquers Bergamo

Teatro Donizetti
11/16/2023 -  & November 19, 24*, 2023
Gaetano Donizetti: Alfredo il Grande
Antonino Siragusa (Alfredo), Gilda Fiume (Amalia), Lovodico Filippo Ravizza (Eduardo), Alfredo Corrado (Atkins), Valeria Girardello (Enrichetta), Florians Cicio (Margerita), Antonio Gares (Guglielmo), Andrés Agudelo (Rivers)
Coro della Radio Unghrese, Zoltán Pad (chorus master), Orchestra Donizetti Opera, Corrado Rovaris (conductor)
Stefan Simone Pintor (stage director) Gregorio Zurla (sets), Gilda Masi (costumes), Virginia Levrio (videography), Veronica Bolognani (assistant director)

(© Donizetti Opera)

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) composed more than seventy operas, including works long part of the standard operatic repertoire, such as Anna Bolena (1830), L’elisir d’amore (1832), Lucrezia Borgia (1833), Maria Stuarda (1835), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), Roberto Devereux (1837), La Fille du regiment (1840), La Favorite (1840) and Don Pasquale (1843).

Bergamo, Donizetti’s native city, organizes an annual festival to celebrate the prolific composer. It takes place each November, coinciding with the composer’s birthday, November 29th. Three operas are presented, usually two rarities and one established work. Many foreigners make the annual pilgrimage to discover obscure operas they’re unlikely to hear elsewhere. This year, the most frequently heard foreign languages at the festival’s venue, the beautiful Teatro Donizetti, were German, French and Spanish, with a smattering of English and Russian.

One of the more obscure works presented this year is an early opera that premiered in 1823 in Naples, Alfredo il Grande. Though one hears countless melodies announcing the fecund composer’s future successes, this is a modest early work by a twenty-six-year-old composer. One could mistake it for an early Rossini work, though his orchestrations, especially his earlier ones, never reached the level of Rossini.

The most glaring weakness of the opera is its libretto, which had been previously rejected by Saverio Mercadante (1796‑1870). Despite Donizetti’s own lack of conviction of the opera’s potential, he couldn’t refuse a commission from the prestigious Teatro San Carlo, Italy’s grand opera house in its then most prosperous city.

The opera recounts Alfred the Great’s conflict with the Danish invaders in the late ninth century. His wife, Queen Amalia, showed great valour and determination in the face of this challenge. In the first act, the king escapes from the Danes thanks to the help of the local pastor Guglielmo (William) and other shepherds. In the second act, he defeats the enemy but perfidious Atkins holds Queen Amalia and a shepherdess hostage, but they are rescued by Alfred’s general, Eduardo (Edward) and the opera ends happily.

Antonino Siragusa was the perfect choice for the title role, premiered two centuries ago by renowned baritenor Andrea Nozzari. Siragusa is a Rossini tenor who dazzles with his high notes, but unlike most, he has a robust, virile almost baritonal timbre in his middle register. He excelled in the opera’s most famous Act I aria “Non m’ingannai” with its martial Rossinian finale.

The revelation of the evening was soprano Gilda Fiume. Endowed with a sizeable but agile voice and a pleasant timbre, she thrilled with her Act I aria “Che potrei dirti, o caro.” The other characters mostly don’t feature in any arias, or at most just one, which are uniformly lacklustre.

The stage director chose to have the Danes and the English identified anachronistically with the present day Danish flag (a white cross on a red background) and the St George’s cross (a red cross on a white background) respectively. The Danes were not Christianized at the time and the English acquired the St George’s cross from the Genovese a while later.

Costumes in this production alternated between the present day and those of the epoch, for no clear reason other than cost savings. In lieu of sets, the audience were shown copious war videos, from World War I to present day Gaza. As Alfred the Great was a scholarly king, books were a recurring theme, with the English cherishing them and the Danes burning them.

The problem with Alfredo il Grande’s libretto is its lack of dramatic tension. We just have a good king and a loyal wife. Atkins, the Danish enemy, is obviously the evil character, scheming and without honour, but his character doesn’t develop, nor do those of the king and queen. Transformation is the main driving force of romantic opera, though here it’s nowhere to be found. No wonder the opera was only performed once – at its premiere!

The reason for mounting this particular 1823 work is undoubtedly its bicentennial. But is reviving an obvious dud justifiable? The simple answer is no, and it would not be possible in any place other than the Bergamo Festival. Firstly, this is Donizetti’s birthplace and this is where his ardent fans from around the world assemble. Secondly, it is instructive to hear the bel canto composer’s early works to understand his development. In short, this opera was no great revelation and there are at least a dozen other unfamiliar works that are at least as good as the master’s established operas that merit discovery more than Alfredo il Grande.

Works such Fausta (1832), Parisina (1833), Gemma di Vergy (1834), Belisario (1836), Les Martyrs (1840), Linda di Chamounix (1842), Maria di Rohan (1843), Dom Sébastien (1843) and Caterina Cornaro (1844), come to mind. However, most of these would involve finding an electrifying charismatic soprano and a wealthy sponsor. Indeed, some of these operas were revived in the last decades of the twentieth century with luminaries such as Leyla Gencer, Montserrat Caballé and Mariana Nicolescu.

Despite the relative weakness of the work, the production was a useful exercise. Also worthwhile was its inclusion of bel canto virtuosi tenor Antonino Siragusa and soprano Gilda Fiume. With their participation, the public enjoyed some delightful Donizetti singing of the highest calibre. So, I would say “mission accomplished”!

Ossama el Naggar



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