We live in an age of operatic rediscovery as an increasing number of forgotten works are re-examined with a view to enriching both the repertory and our understanding of musical history. None, perhaps, has such a curious story as Donizetti’s L’Ange de Nisida. Written in Paris in 1839, it was abandoned near completion when the commissioning theatre went bankrupt and, the following year, Donizetti drastically reworked it as La Favorite. A decade ago, musicologist Candida Mantica undertook to reconstruct the earlier score from Donizetti’s fragmentary manuscripts, and The Royal Opera has now given the world premiere in collaboration with Opera Rara.
The two operas broadly follow the same narrative. The angel of the title is Sylvia de Linarès, mistress to Fernand, King of Naples, but in love with the soldier Leone who is persuaded to marry her, in catastrophic ignorance of her past, when papal displeasure falls on Fernand for his scandalous private life.
La Favorite is deadly serious but L’Ange de Nisida, in contrast, blends tragedy with comedy through the figure of Fernand’s bumbling chamberlain Gaspar, whose inept conniving sets the plot in motion. The emotional range is consequently wider, but the score is less homogenous, with Gaspar’s antics imperfectly integrated into the whole. The vocal balance is also different. Sylvia is a coloratura soprano; however, her opposite number in La Favorite is a mezzo, whose music is arguably more intense.
The Royal Opera and Opera Rara have unquestionably done it proud. Mark Elder conducts with passion and elan, and the singing is consistently exciting. Vito Priante’s outstanding Fernand is all preening sensuality and fiery, if hypocritical authority, while Joyce El-Khoury’s ravishing Sylvia combines vulnerability with tremendous dignity. David Junghoon Kim sings Leone’s high-lying arias with superb ease, and Laurent Naouri makes an engagingly funny Gaspar.
Whether L’Ange de Nisida will ultimately oust La Favorite from its place on the fringes of the repertory is debatable, but it’s a major rediscovery that finally allows audiences to hear both scores and make our own choice between the two.
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