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Opera Review: Singalonganopera

Donizetti's `Elisabetta'

RFH, SBC, London

The story behind the excavation of Donizetti's "lost" opera is almost as mysterious and convoluted as that of the Royal Opera House redevelopment. Singed manuscripts labelled "never finished or performed", almost certainly salvaged from a fire at Her Majesty's, were found bound and discarded in the basements of Covent Garden. The American scholar Will Hutchfield unearthed Acts 1 and 3 in 1984; four years later, Richard Bonynge came across Act 2 while looking for ballet music. Thus began the reconstruction and belated rehabilitation of Elisabetta di Siberia - the tale of a young Russian girl who walks from Siberia to Moscow, braving floods and Tartar hordes, to clear the name of her unjustly exiled father. Donizetti described it as a "tragi-comedy", mindful, it would seem, of the second act, where our heroine miraculously escapes drowning by floating atop the tomb of Ivano's dead daughter Lisinska. Now, wouldn't we like to see that in a new Richard Jones production?

Or perhaps Elisabetta was destined to be heard and not seen - as here, at its world premiere, in timely recognition of the composer's bicentenary. Aficionados were out in force, naturally. I heard tell of one little old lady who gratefully sang along with every number. Spooky? No, she'd heard it all before. We all had. Never mind the plot, feel the coloratura. Siberia or Sorrento? No matter, cue that feisty overture and let the festivities begin. Donizetti always left us something to celebrate, and here was no exception.

Minutes into this unlikeliest of scenarios, Elisabetta's father Potoski has a noble aria played out against the individual coloration of four horns and cello and bass pizzicati. And, with barely time to warm his voice, the immensly promising and handsome young Peruvian tenor, Juan Diego Florez, was tweaking at the ledger-lines in anticipation of a second aria, where wickedly placed high Cs suggested an early dress rehearsal for La Fille du Regiment. A small but elegant and mellifluous voice, it will sit most comfortably among the rich pickings of the bel canto repertoire, where one hopes it will grow and prosper. Mind you, Florez not only sounded but looked more like Elisabetta's lover than her father. Andrea Rost was well-matched but somewhat over-parted in that respect, lovely enough in her cello-led Benedizione near the end of Act 1, better yet in Act 2, where the key duet with Ivano (perhaps the highlight of the night) raised her singing to an altogether higher level of engagement. Alastair Miles was Ivano: suffice it to say that his performance was possessed of an input and will-power and interest that hers conspicuously lacked. She has the notes, she has the technique, but what does she tell us?

The character of Michele (the stylish Alessandro Corbelli) would put it all down to experience. Like a refugee from Don Pasquale, his brief lay in providing the patter of light relief (a courier's life is not a happy one). And so successful was he that you barely noticed that the Act 1 finale seemed to have suffered an unscheduled amputation. Carlo Rizzi conducted this and everything else like he knew what Donizetti had in mind, if not in manuscript. And doubtless the little old lady carried on humming the missing music to herself.

Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 7pm on Monday