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Donizetti Belisario

A.J. Fletcher Institute and North Carolina School of Arts, January 26, 28 and 30, 2005.

(The photographs below were taken by Christine Rucker and come courtesy of  the A.J. Fletcher Institute and North Carolina School of Arts)

The A.J. Fletcher Institute and North Carolina School of Arts recently made the bold decision to revive Donizetti's Belisario. William Thomas Walker on the Classical Voice of North Carolina site (complete article here)  maintained that:-

"Based upon this production of the new critical edition, past commentators have been wrong to dismiss Belisario as second-rate Donizetti. William Ashbrook's Donizetti quotes a letter from the composer to a Paris music publisher: "Belisario is less thoroughly worked out (than Lucia), but I know that in the theatre it had an effect...." Compared to Lucia, this opera is more dramatically compact: the build-up of the tragedy is almost as sure as Puccini's, in Tosca, and the scoring is more consistently interesting. While there's no mad scene, there is a big juicy part for the dramatic soprano, a solid part for the mezzo-soprano, and a complex and wide-ranging role for the baritone. Fine smaller parts for bass and tenor add spice. With the new critical edition scores now available, perhaps Eve Queler and her Opera Orchestra of New York will introduce the opera to Carnegie Hall. It is an ideal opera for music festivals. It is too bad this fine production could not be taken on tour or released on a DVD."

As Nancy Goldsmith's article, reproduced below, describes, the process of getting the score and parts was far from simple, many of these for rare operas existing only in a few opera houses at best and then sometimes in heavily revised versions.  Eventually, this situation will be remedied by the Donizetti Critical Edition, although with a prolific composer like Donizetti this will be quite some time.  Fortunately in this case, Ottavio Sbragia was just completing a new performing edition of Belisario, which, hopefully, will eventually become part of a critical edition of the score and was able to make it available. More information on the score and parts of the performing version of Belisario by Ottavio Sbragia  is available at http://www.geocities.com/belisarioscore/ .

The cast and production team were:- 

Irene, daughter of Belisario – Dawn Pierce

Eudora, her confident – Kristen Yarborough

Antonina, wife of Belisario – Emily Newton

Eutropio, Captain of the Imperial Guard – John Kawa

Giustiniano, Emperor of Byzantium – Jonathon Merrit

Belisario, Supreme leader of the Greek Army – Alphonso Cherry

Alamiro, Prisoner of Belisario – Scott Mize

Eusebio, Jailer – Jonathan Frodella

Ottario, Leader of the Rebel Troops – Erich Barbera

Centurion, Messenger – Joshua Hudson

 

Jamie Allbritten, Music Director

Steven LaCosse, Stage Director

Angela Vanstory Ward, Vocal Preparation

Rob Eastman-Mullins, Set Designer

Emily Lagerquist, Lighting Designer

Brie Furches, Costume Designer

Ashley Leitzel, Wig and Makeup Designer

 

 

Belisario Act 1 Opening scene

Act 1 opening scene

 

Belisario Ensemble

Act 1 finale

 

Belisario and Irene

Act II, Alphonso Cherry as Belisario, Dawn Pierce as Irene

 

Belisario Irene etc 

 

 

 

 

Act III, Scene Two

 

Jonathan Merritt, Giustiniano

Dawn Pierce, Irene

Emily Newton, Antonina

 

 

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A Note on the Score

 by Nancy E. Goldsmith and included in the opera programme

An opera score is merely a series of inert marks on a page until brought to life by the conductor's baton and the director's vision, but it's the necessary beginning of any production. For us this year it was a particularly arduous journey to our starting point.

We had long had the libretto and the piano vocal score reprint from Kalmus, and the singers began learning their roles. An NCSA staff member even created a new piano vocal edition in an updated and more legible format. But we still needed to rent the full score, and our artistic director and conductor, Jamie Allbritten, turned first to the Ricordi Publishing House of Milan, one of the oldest in Italy and publisher of great opera composers from Rossini and Donizetti to Verdi and Puccini. They hold a huge archive of scores including an autograph manuscript of Belisario,but you can't conduct an opera from an early nineteenth century manuscript. You need a modern performing edition with parts for the singers and all the orchestral instruments. Ricordi is currently working on the critical edition of Donizetti's works, so if anyone could direct us to the score, they could. They didn't have it, they said, and referred us to the library of the Donizetti Institute in the composer's home town of Bergamo. After emails, phone calls and faxes we finally had an answer: no score. Try Venice.

Belisario premiered at Venice's Teatro La Fenice in 1836 following Donizetti's spectacular success with Lucia di Lammermoor. So surely they would have the score. Opera lovers will recall learning with horror in January 1996 that fire had gutted the great house. The phoenix (La Fenice) finally rose again from its ashes and re-opened in December 2003, but we learned that many valuable scores had also been lost in the fire, including Donizetti's Belisario. The helpful librarian there referred us to La Scala in Milan, saying "if they don't have it, no one in Italy will have it." We called. They didn't.  Back to Venice for other suggestions. The beginning date of rehearsals was drawing closer and we were becoming somewhat—concerned. 

Fortunately, many of La Fenice's materials had long been stored at an archive in Venice called the Fondazione Levi, and the helpful librarian suggested we contact them. We did and they had a copy! A chorus of joyful shouts echoed through Gray Building on the NCSA campus. The copy was on microfilm and their reader-printer was broken! The joyful chorus dimmed. We would have had to hire someone to take the precious microfilm, which ran to about 500 pages, to another institution and pay to print it out, page by agonizing page. Who had the staff for such a job? Could it be done on time?

At this point Mr. Allbritten tried another approach. He contacted one of the leading musicologists in this country for help, Philip Gossett of the University of Chicago, General Editor of the critical editions of the works of Verdi and Rossini. He also searched for every recording or performance of Belisario since the fire of 1996.A CD came up with selections from many of Donizetti's works, including the third act finale of Belisario, issued by a company in London that specialized in rare 19thcentury opera. Allbritten ordered it overnighted. When the CD arrived the credit for the finale said "from the edition by OttavioSbragia." This was late one Friday afternoon.

On the following sunny Saturday morning, Mr. Allbritten and I both did independent searches for "Ottavio Sbragia" in the on-line telephone book of Italy. We had reason to believe that he lived in Rome, and while several Sbragias came up in the results, there was only one in Rome. We discussed it by phone and decided that I should make a cold call. I dialed Mr. Sbragia's number at about 1:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m. on Saturday night in Rome. I had just started my introduction…"Buona sera, Signor Sbragia, you don't know me, but I represent a conservatory in Winston-Salem, NC …"when he interrupted and said, "Ah yes, you're looking for Belisario!"I nearly fell off the chair. Our odyssey was over.

Although I didn't know it at the time, Philip Gossett had sent an urgent email to Gabriele Dotto, his Italian colleague working on the critical edition of Donizetti's works for Ricordi, and Dotto had in turn emailed Sbragia. So Signor Sbragia was not at all surprised to hear from us. After more calls, emails, and negotiations, a beautiful gift arrived via FedEx from the Eternal City: the score of Belisario.

And that's just one story from the exciting behind-the-scenes world of opera.

(The third act finale referred to above is available on Opera Rara ORR217.The full opera is available on a historic recording (various labels including Arkadia CDHP 586.2)made in 1969 from La Fenice, Venice conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni with Leyla Gencer as Antonina and Renato Bruson as Belisario.)

 

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