The performance-history of Donizetti’s tragedia lirica ‘Belisario’ speaks volumes about changing tastes.
Premiered in Venice in 1836, and over the following eight years being produced in Milan, Naples, Vienna, London, Berlin, Paris, Philadelphia, and New York - the Americans were operatically up to speed even at that early date - it was a bel canto staple until that vogue passed in the late 19th century, and it remained in limbo until its Venetian revival in 1969.
But it’s still seldom performed: the general theory is that the plot’s lack of a love-interest has been to blame for its overshadowing by the same composer’s more popular ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’, and Donizetti himself preferred the latter work, which does have better tunes.
The plot of ‘Belisario’ has a very classical thrust. Set in sixth-century Byzantium, it turns on whether the eponymous general is a traitor to his emperor Justinian, and whether he has murdered his own son; his wife Antonina uses forged documents to prove the former, and Belisario is punished by blinding and imprisonment; he is finally vindicated, but dies heroically in battle. In this framework, Donizetti deploys devices which Verdi would go on to perfect, notably the male ‘friendship’ duet and the father-daughter duet; the revenge aria sung by the young warrior Alamiro - outraged at the barbarity of Belisario’s punishment - anticipates its equivalent in Verdi’s ‘Il trovatore’.
The reason why this concert performance conducted by Mark Elder at the Barbican was so successful was because he and his singers - plus the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Singers - had spent the week recording it for the Opera Rara label. And the cast was particularly strong, with Alastair Miles’s grave Justinian presiding over a vividly characterful young cast.
Tenor Russell Thomas’s Alamiro had a lovely ping to his expressive upper register, while soprano Camilla Roberts brought power and conviction to the protagonist’s daughter Irene. And in Nicola Alaimo’s Belisario and Joyce El-Khoury’s Antonina we got an ideal pairing, his resonant Sicilian baritone wonderfully complemented by the silky perfection of her sound, and by the Callas-like way she shaped her lines – I long to see and hear her perform again.
If this performance is anything to go by, Opera Rara’s Cd will make an incontrovertible case for this austere but prophetically Verdian work.