Competition at Church and Court: Anna Monks follows UCOpera for their production of Donizetti’s La Favorite
Donizetti’s La Favorite appears at first to be a straightforward love triangle, but it soon becomes clear that the conflict to vie for the affection of Leonor, (‘La Favorite’) is not the only competition. In a production that wonderfully plays out the contradictions and hypocrisy that comes with winning power, UCOpera perfectly highlights that the most important of Donizetti’s conflicts is between the power of the crown and the church, made clear from the moment that the priest Balthazar gleefully pronounces that even ‘the King kneels before the church’.
The opera begins with Fernand being thrown from the monastery in order to pursue his love for an anonymous woman who he has fallen in love with while praying. Having no idea of Leonor’s status or position in the court as the King’s mistress, Fernand dutifully and passionately follows Leonor’s orders to not ask questions and live in secret at her residence. Unable to leave her position at court, Leonor grants him a military commission, which he excels in so much that he helps, much to the delight of King Alphonse, to conquer the Moors. Invited back to court as a war hero the King promises to reward him with anything he desires. Meanwhile the King has been put under pressure from Balthazar and the church to dismiss his unlawful mistress and return to his Queen. When Fernand asks for Leonor’s hand as reward, Alphonse jumps at the chance to rid himself of his current pressures and agrees to marry them. But as is typical of opera story lines, everything collapses in Act III when Leonor’s true status is revealed to Fernand who promptly returns every gift from the King, throws his Marquis order to the ground, breaks his sword at the base of the throne, spurns Leonor and leaves the court with nothing but the honour of his father’s name intact. The pair are briefly reconciled in a poignant scene at the monastery – in fact this is their main scene together alone on stage – and Leonor soon dies of heartbreak and exhaustion.
Louis Carver’s wonderfully designed set and the subtle coloured lighting of Joshua Pharo made the most of the smaller sized staged by implementing clever perspective tricks. Multi-purpose staging kept the setting simple but highly stylish allowing the leads space to breathe in an uncluttered yet highly effective surrounding. John Ramster’s decision to take the story out of the 14th century and place it in the 1930s allowed this staging to come to life while also making an interesting comment about the privacy in the media. The 1930s were the last time in which a King’s mistress was able to be kept remotely secret: Wallace Simpson remained anonymous until Edward VIII’s abdication, to place the story in any decade after would not have been plausible.
As the central focus on the stage switches between the throne and cross in a symbolic action to represent the power balance at play, so do the powerful performances of Kevin Greenlaw as an adulterous Alphonse, and Tristan Hambleton’s easy authority. A particularly impressive moment was Greenlaw’s aria Leonor! Viens, j’abandonne in Act II as he describes his love for Leonor in his smooth and arresting baritone, which delivers flashes of manic obsession and control over her. Catherine Backhouse’s mezzo really led the set, her aria Oh mon Fernand in Act III was a mournful solo which she performed with excellent intelligence and subtlety as her voice and behaviour wavered between delight at her upcoming marriage and worry of her dishonourable position. Fernand, played by David Woodward, possessed an earnest and unassuming tenor entirely suited to his role as a misguided youth driven by an unsubstantiated love. He appeared to settle into his role throughout, beginning slightly cautiously, but by his final duet with Leonor, he delivered a truly believable performance between the struggle to follow the morals of the church or his heart.
Ella Joy charmingly performed the supporting role of Leonor’s confidante, Inès. Her tranquil soprano tones were delivered gracefully during the ensemble pieces at the Island of Leon in Act I; her high range was particularly impressive and elegantly phrased. Sam Peterson performed the villainous role of Don Gaspar, Alphonse’s henchman, with a pleasing menacing tone to his tenor line as he carried out the unpleasant orders from his King.
UCLU Symphony Chorus provided a thoughtful and lively performance to the piece and were confident in their handling of complex harmonies. Their true force was showcased throughout Act IIII as they brought the opera to a rousing close with their final forceful yet meditative chorus. The men’s chorus in Act III was particularly enjoyable; giving a disdainful and humorous reaction to the sacrilegious event that is about to take place. UCLU Symphony Orchestra was similarly responsive in their accompaniment under the able guidance of Charles Peebles. The strings provided a driving force to the music throughout while the brass and wind provided thoughtfully played melodic interjections during the solo pieces.
Another excellent production from UCOpera, particularly commendable as they were away from their usual home at the Bloomsbury theatre, and poignant in the centrality of power struggles which are fast becoming a recurring problem for the UCL arts societies.
Featured Image Credits: John Reading