Beyond Egmont: a semi-revival for Donizetti’s Le Duc d’Albe

Donizetti: Le Duc d’Albe (Opera Rara)

duc-d-albe-opera-raraEuropean wrangles in Brussels are nothing new. In Donizetti’s Le Duc d’Albe, Brussels is under Spanish rule, Count Egmont has just been beheaded and his daughter, Hélène, is inciting a Flemish revolt. The hot-headed Henri confronts the despotic Duke, but is mysteriously spared when the conspirators’ plot is uncovered. Unfortunately, that’s as far as this new release from Opera Rara takes us as Donizetti never got round to completing it. A full synopsis, thankfully, is included.

The history of Le Duc d’Albe is long and convoluted. Following Donizetti’s Les Martyrs, a French remake of Poliuto (recorded by Opera Rara in 2014), Le Duc d’Albe was another project for the Paris Opéra. He started writing it in May 1839, but delays to Les Martyrs cut short composition time. Then Donizetti was busy with reworking another abandoned working – creating La Favorite – and Le Duc kept getting shunted to one side. It was also stuck in a queue behind Meyerbeer and Halevy at the Opéra, and Donizetti despaired that it would never be performed. One of the librettists, Eugène Scribe, launched a court case where he won damages of 7,500 francs from the Opéra’s director, Léon Pillet, because the opera had yet to be staged. Scribe eventually adapted his libretto to a different setting – 12th-century Sicily – where it was used by Verdi for Les Vêpres siciliennes. Donizetti himself initiated a similar lawsuit against the Opéra, but ill-health intervened. By the time of his death in 1848, only Acts 1 and 2 were more or less complete, with about a third of the remainder in the form of vocal lines alone.

Sir Mark Elder © Russell Duncan

Sir Mark Elder
© Russell Duncan

In 1881, the score was offered to Ricordi, who rejected it. Ricardi’s Milanese publishing rival, Giuseppina Lucca, appointed a jury to supervise the opera’s completion. Matteo Salvi, who had briefly studied with Donizetti) completed it, leading to a first performance in 1882. The score later disappeared for years before resurfacing in 1951, after which its rare appearances were usually in Italian. Opera Rara reverts to the original French, but only offers Acts 1 and 2 on the basis that these are the only two acts Donizetti largely completed. Martin Fitzpatrick has edited the score, filling the gaps where necessary, including the brief Prélude (below).

Sir Mark Elder is an Opera Rara veteran and takes charge of a bracing performance. Angela Meade is occasionally a little squally at the top, but has the spinto muscle to power through the role of Hélène. She rouses the Flemish rebels well and is moving in her prayer to the ghost of her father to save Henri. Michael Spyres (thrilling in Les Martyrs) is again in splendid form here. His vibrant tone is unmistakeable, his bright, open tenor perfectly suited for heroic bel canto roles. He shares a wonderful love duet with Hélène (climaxing in a top E flat for both singers – clip below) and another duet with the Duke in Act 1, who starts digging into Henri’s parentage, signalling that there’s a plot twist ahead. (Anyone who knows Les Vêpres siciliennes knows can make an informed guess…)

Laurent Naouri, in the title role, doesn’t have a great deal to do here. He is absent from Act 2 and his set-piece aria comes in the missing Act 3. Baritone Renato Bruson championed the role. Naouri is more of a bass-baritone and sounds a touch woolly in Act 1, although his duet with Spyres ends well. Among the rest of the cast, Gianluca Buratto’s black bass excites in the role of Daniel, the brewer, and David Stout is firm-toned as the Spanish officer Sandoval. The Opera Rara Chorus swaggers in a rousing song in praise of Belgian beer, while the Hallé plays with vigour.

Michael Spyres © Russell Duncan

Michael Spyres
© Russell Duncan

Perhaps economic restraints were also behind the decision to record only the first two acts. I’d have welcomed the chance to hear Salvi’s completion, but for that you’ll have to turn to Fernando Previtali’s 1951 RAI recording, or the 2012 reconstruction (in French) for Vlaamse Opera in Ghent (on Dynamic). Nevertheless, Opera Rara’s truncated account should not be missed by Donizettians.

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