Although Donizetti composed 2 small vocal pieces in 1817, Enrico di Borgogna was the first piece to be put on stage. The opera was written for the re-opening of the Teatro San Luca in Venice after extensive renovation works and was given its first performance the 14th November 1818. Very brief was the critic of the Gazzetta privilegiata di Venezia who wrote that the opera “Pleased but was not fully enjoyed” and wrote about the composer that he was “with good talents provided”. The critic of the Nuovo Osservatore Veneziano gave us a clearer picture: “a trio in the first act, a duet in the second was strongly applauded….. one would perhaps have applauded more, if the sudden indisposition of Signora Adelaide Catalani had not forced to omit her aria of the second act as well as two duets between her and Ms. Eckerlin.” He then went on describing “the merit of music after these bitter events” and said that the public “knew how to distinguish the merit of the composition from that of the execution. . ….. for which the audience wanted to greet Mr. Donizetti on stage with applause” Overall a very successful result for unknown “Donizelletti”’s (sic) first staged opera. The libretto, written by Bartolomeo Merelli (who would later commission Verdi’s first 3 operas) is dramaturgically very thin but this allows the director of the Bergamo production to avoid the historic setting: During the overture we are backstage of a theatre and see several chairs with the characters’ name (Enrico, Elisa, Guido…) with the name of the opera’s first performers (Fanny Eckerlin, Adelina Catalani etc….) It becomes clear we are at Enrico di Borgogna’s own rehearsal in 1818, and at the end of the overture we see the theatre on revolving for the singers to perform the opera within the opera. The effect is very pleasing especially as the singers, when acting within the performance, exaggerate their movements in an affected style. They all wear 18th century clothes and 18th century is also the theatre management-including the impresario going crazy in order to stage the opera without major incidents, and the stage machinery which hands over props, lowers painted backgrounds and moves sea waves. A beautiful example of metatheatre.
As the Teatro Donizetti is being renovated, the performances take place in the Teatro Sociale in Bergamo Alta. The theatre is not very big and this allows the singers to lighten their voice, look into depth for colors and details. All singers are very good including the smaller roles. Levy Sekgapane has a small voice but has an easy fling to the top and the quick embellishments are flawless specially in his 2nd act aria with choir. The buffo Luca Tittoto has a beautiful voice and sings both his arias with much verve and humor, his misogynistic aria was quite funny. The two ladies Ganassi and Bonitatibus sing very well, the voices are not forced and their act II duet is sung beautifully. Ganassi was quite amusing with the mix of theatrical over acting acting (when playing her own character’s first performer Catalani) and true feelings for Enrico (in the beautiful duet with Bonitatibus/Enrico/Eckerlin) The choir sings well, and the orchestra, which is excellently balanced with just 18 string players, is well directed under Alessandro de Marchi.
Il castello di Kenilworth (or Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth in its revised title) was composed for the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. For his first encounter with the royalties of romanticism (fashionable at the beginning of the 19th century and a subject dear to Donizetti, who would compose such jewels as Roberto Devereux, Maria Stuarda, and Anna Bolena) Donizetti shows dramatic intensity in many pieces such as the duets and the quartet of the second act. Donizetti, in a letter to his teacher and mentor Mayr, wrote after the first performance:
The faith of theatrical performances is always bizarre. I went on stage with Castello di Kenilworth on the sixth of this month (i.e. 6th July 1829), at the gala for her Majesty the Queen. And this opera, which has been applauded so much at every piece during the dress rehearsal was almost rejected at its first performance. I suffered very much because of it, all the more for having seen the rehearsals of what should’ve been an excellent first performance. Or perhaps it was the court etiquette, because they do not applaud on such evenings. The opera ended up neither very well perform nor very well listened to by the audience. Then la Tosi fell sick, and only on the 12th was it given again. It was Sunday, a beautiful day, the theatre packed, the singers in good spirits. I alone was uneasy. The king and queen of Piedmont came and applauded. Prince Leopold came and did likewise. The king and queen of Naples came and did likewise. Thus the singers were full of animation, the public could express themselves, and the result of all this was continuous applause! We were all called on stage, and the evening was most brilliant. Between us I would not give one piece of Il paria “ (the opera written for the San Carlo just 6 months earlier) for all of Kenilworth, but meanwhile: fate is bizarre.
The public seemed to think otherwise, though, as Il paria was given 5 performances, while Kenilworth was staged 12 times and re-staged at the end of the same year. Afterwards, however, the opera disappeared until 1989.
This year’s Bergamo production does the work full justice. It seemed to start as a two-chairs-and-a-table setting but the stage direction and the beautiful lighting compensated what turned out to be a well directed show with a interesting finale : Élisabeth, around which all intriguing revolved, sings her final aria while a golden grid detaches from the floor turning out to be the Queen’s own cage. Frizza doesn’t shine with fantasy but he accompanies well albeit with a little drag. The stars of the show are clearly the singers. Pratt as Elisabeth is more dramatic than usual. The role fits her like a glove, scenically and vocally she is excellent. Next to her Remigio is wonderful as actress as well as singer, hers is the showstopper in act II, an aria where she duets with harp and glassharmonica, an instrument Donizetti would later think of again for his Lucia di Lammermoor. Xabier Anduaga was equally excellent as Leicester. This very young tenor seems to be clear for stardom as he has a voice that is strong and expansive, his top notes bright and his coloratura clear nonetheless. Stefan Pop is a fine Warney.