donizetti l'esule roma opera rara

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)  
L’esule di Roma – melodramma eroico in two acts (Naples 1828)
Murena, a senator – Nicola Alaimo (baritone) 
Argelia, his daughter – Albina Shagimuratova (soprano) 
Settimio, a tribune – Sergey Romanovsky (tenor) 
Publio, Roman army general victorious in Sarmatia – Lluís Calvet i Pey (baritone) 
Leontina, Argelia’s confidant and Emilia’s attendant – Kezia Bienek (mezzo-soprano) 
Lucio, a centurion / Fulvio, a decurion – André Henriques (bass-baritone) 
Opera Rara Chorus
Britten Sinfonia/Carlo Rizzi
rec. 2023, Fairfield Halls, Croydon, London 
Italian libretto with English translation
Opera Rara ORC64 [2 CDs: 136] 

Opera Rara, founded in 1970, has become a label on a quest to breathe new life into rare and overlooked Italian and French opera mainly of the 19th century and some from the early 20th century. A number of Opera Rara revivals have proved to be rediscovered treasures.

The operas of Gaetano Donizetti have featured strongly in the Opera Rara discography. Best known for L’elisir d’amore (1832), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) and La fille du regiment (1840), Donizetti was highly productive, with a legacy of some 70 operas. In fact, the label’s first complete studio recording in 1978 was the world premiere recording of Donizetti’s Ugo, conte di Parigi (1832) (review).

To mark the 225th anniversary of Donizetti’s birth, Opera Rara has released this new studio recording of L’esule di Roma (The Roman Exile). It is the label’s 27th complete Donizetti revival. A few days after the recording sessions, Opera Rara gave a much-admired concert performance of in the Cadogan Hall, London.

Donizetti’s librettist, Domenico Gilardoni based his text on a tale by Luigi Marchionni, who places the action circa AD 35 in Imperial Rome under the rule of emperor Tiberius (AD 14-37), the second emperor. In his triumphant military career Tiberius, expanded the borders of the Roman empire including a conspicuous victory in Sarmatia under general Publio. 

Gilardoni’s libretto is intense with political machinations and romantic chicanery, the usual fanciful plots, but there is nothing too difficult to comprehend. Crucial to it is Roman senator Murena’s love for his daughter Argelia that runs counter to his sworn loyalty to emperor Tiberius. The soprano doesn’t die at the conclusion of this Donizetti opera, instead it’s a happy ending. Incarcerated and sentenced to death Settimio is taken to the arena to be killed. Settimio’s life is saved by a deus ex machina as the lion he is thrown to recognises him as his rescuer from a previous encounter and protects him from the other wild beasts. 

Opera Rara repertoire consultant Roger Parker has described this neglected bel canto opera as ‘one of the most significant achievements of his early life’ and ‘a milestone in the composer’s illustrious career’. Premiered on 1st January 1828 at the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, it was received with great acclaim. Revised a number of times by Donizetti, it was staged in several European countries and remained in the Neapolitan repertoire until 1840. Its final nineteenth century revival was given in 1869 in Naples. Some 113 years later, it was revived by Pro Opera with a 1982 concert staging at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.

A valuable on-line opera discography compiled by Brian Capon lists two recordings. Both are live accounts; the first is conducted by Leslie Head in 1982 and the second is under Massimo de Bernart in 1986. Carlo Rizzi here conducts the premiere studio recordingbased on Opera Rara’s new critical edition of the score fashioned by Parker and co-editor Ian Schofield. Parker’s booklet essay mentions that some ‘newly discovered music’ is included. 

There are three principal roles: the Roman senator Murena, his daughter Argelia, and the tribune Settimio. Murena is part of a conspiracy to smear Settimio and force his banishment but he is emotionally conflicted between the agonising choice of his duty to emperor Tiberius and his love for his daughter. Rather than the more usual tenor, the most prominent role is Murena, sung by a bass or bass-baritone, here the Palermo-born-and bred Nicola Alaimo. Alaimo’s impressive gift for expression is aptly demonstrated, together with pleasing clarity of tone and ease of projection. He excels in depicting Murena’s torment upon Settimio’s surprise return to Rome. A ‘mad scene’ is usually soprano territory, but here it is Murena who is driven to hysteria, overwhelmed by his misdeeds.

Russian tenor Sergey Romanovsky gives an admirable performance as the young tribune Settimio, a victim of conspiracy unjustly banished and later sentenced to death in the arena. Standing out is the scena e cavatina in which Settimio asserts his love for Argelia and pleads his innocence. Worthy of praise, too, is Settimio’s scena ed aria set the dungeon. My favourite section of the scena is Nudo terren, when Romanovsky tenderly sings of his love for Argelia and declares that they will see each other again, after death. It is a demanding scena successfully accomplished. The final section Si senda alla tomba is especially notable, with Romanovsky achieving his highest notes securely and with real purpose. 

The role of Argelia is sung by Russian coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova, a native of Tashkent. She has gained a legion of admirers for her exciting performances on the international stage. She gives a compelling performance, as Albina agonises over her conflicting loyalties towards her father and her betrothed. My favourite moments are Argelia’s and Murena’s scena e duetto and her solo contributions in the final scena in which she captures the young women’s dilemmas so persuasively. In Porgi que’ Fogli she displays her exciting trademark high notes in a memorable performance. Equally praiseworthy is the terzetto for Argelia, Murena and Settimio, providing impressive singing and significant drama. 

Despite having an important arietta, the role of Roman general Publio, returning victorious from Sarmatia, is not sufficiently developed for him to be classed as a principal. Nevertheless, Catalan baritone Lluís Calvet i Pey sings Publio’s adeptly and with humanity. In the other well cast comprimario roles, mezzo-soprano Kezia Bienek and bass-baritone André Henriques certainly don’t let the side down. 

Donizetti’s engaging score holds my interest from start to finish. Conductor Carlo Rizzi draws out the lyricism of the music and ensures that it never drags. Frequently The exquisitely played instrumental solos frequently command attention. Clearly well prepared by chorus master Stephen Harris, the Opera Rara Chorus is in resilient and unified voice, making a considerable impact.

As usual, the production standards are high. A comprehensive 113-page booklet contains the full Italian libretto with an English translation alongside it. Included too are two essays, the first written by music professor Roger Parker and the second by Dr. Eleonora Di Cintio, both bel canto opera specialists. 

Praise is due to Opera Rara for this valuable Donizetti project that revives an opera overlooked for far too long and is presented here in the best possible light. 

Michael Cookson 

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Other Cast
Emilia, Argelia’s younger sister – A mute role 
Murena’s and Publio’s kinsmen, Argelia’s slaves, People, Soldiers, Lictor, Priests, Sarmatian prisoners