Classical music: Crowning glory

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Donizetti has been fortunate to have anniversaries for two years running. He was born in 1797, so last year marked the bicentenary of his birth; and died in 1848, so this year is the 150th anniversary of his death. Yet for someone who composed a total of more operas than his years, the British commemorations have hardly been extensive. But a rare and potentially very fine Donizetti is in the offing tomorrow in Queen Elizabeth Hall, via a semi-staged performance of the last of his operas that Donizetti ever saw - before insanity overtook him - Caterina Cornaro. What's more, this production not only boasts the talents of Julia Migenes (right) in the title role, it will also be conducted by the great bel canto exponent, Richard Bonynge, wielding the baton again in the UK after an absence of eight years.

"The event is really the brainchild of Lady Hunt," explains impresario Alan Sievewright, "the Cypriot wife of the British ambassador (and former Mastermind winner) Sir David Hunt. Lady Hunt has always been fascinated by the legendary Queen of Cyprus, and, together with her husband, edited a biography about her. Now, with his important late opera, it's possible to bring Donizetti into the equation."

Donizetti's Gothic concoction nonetheless takes a few liberties with the story of the real-life 15th-century queen. Caterina is betrothed to the Frenchman Gerardo, but the marriage is postponed when, for political reasons, King Lusignano of Cyprus wishes to marry her. After a great deal of intrigue, which includes an attempt to slowly poison Lusignano, Gerardo joins the Knights of the Cross to help Lusignano defend Cyprus against Venice. Lusignano is mortally injured; Gerardo departs for Rhodes; and the fate of the Cypriots is left to brave Queen Caterina's care.

"The plot is already fast-moving and theatrical," says Sievewright. "But we're adding semi-staging to it. I believe this sort of approach is far more revealing than a concert performance, most importantly because it gives the cast the chance to move, and not just sit there until called upon." Soprano Julia Migenes certainly agrees. "Part of the appeal of the role is that it's been so infrequently performed - perhaps only three singers have ever sung it - in 1844, and then not until it was unearthed in 1972. Also, I liked the idea of a semi-staging in which I can get physically involved as opposed to just delivering from a score. Also, I really wanted the chance to work, for the first time, with Richard Bonynge - a real expert in bel canto opera. The role is really thrilling, too - Caterina is very much a modern and independent woman, and Donizetti makes her vocal lines big and beefy. There's a lot to get one's teeth into."

Rare-opera aficionado Sievewright concurs: "What one has to remember about Donizetti is that he didn't simply rewrite the same opera time and time again. At the end of this career, he's still trying something new." Something new, something fresh, something interesting, something challenging. It all bodes well for this enterprising semi-staging of Caterina Cornaro. For Sievewright, Bonynge, Migenes, the Vasari Singers, the British Youth Opera Orchestra et al - and all admirers of Donizetti - the 150th anniversary of his demise is definitely not passing unnoticed.

`Caterina Cornaro' is at QEH, South Bank, SE1 (0171-960 4242) tomorrow, 7pm

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