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A Favorite Revived

 

La favorite was once a staple, so why did it disappear for so long?

By Patrick Summers, Artistic & Music Director
Margaret Alkek Williams Chair

 

I’m always delighted when asked what certain operas are “about,” because opera carries several histories within it. Opera is primarily a musical form that became theatrical and this further complicates the question of what any single opera is “about,” because it is about both its time and our own.

So, what is Donizetti’s La favorite about? It is about the mistress of a powerful man that was commissioned for the mistress of a powerful man. But it is also considerably more.

La favorite was one of the two or three most popular operas of the 19th century. It is set in Spain, written by an Italian, and sung in French. If the opera was known at all more recently, it was in its translated Italian version, La favorita. In one way, La favorite is “about” singing, in that everything in the opera is illuminated by the life force of singing, and the opera has one of the great scores of its era, a wonderland of gorgeously spinning vocal lines and memorably toe-tapping choruses. Going deeper, La favorite is about the intersection of religious faith and physical desire, and beneath that it is about the unique Spanish crossroads of the Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish faiths, though those conflicts are as subtle as they were forced to be in the censor-driven world of 19th century opera. In the words of La favorite’s director, Kevin Newbury:

La favorite is a story in which faith and sexuality collide. The primal forces of attraction and jealousy invade a repressed, patriarchal landscape where women suffer punishment and humiliation at the hands of the men in power. Our production begins in a seemingly naturalistic world that gradually transforms into something more heightened and abstract, mirroring Fernand’s psychological crisis of faith.

The “favorite” of the title is the character of Léonor, played at HGO by Jamie Barton. Rosine Stolz, for whom the opera was written, was the mistress of the impresario who commissioned it, Léon Pillet, the director of the Paris Opera, and their relationship was one of the world’s more delicious scandals at the time adding an extra layer of naughtiness to the opera’s history. Personal eccentricities aside, Stolz was a great singer, and Donizetti wrote two iconic title roles for her, Mary Stuart, and Léonor in La favorite.

In art, favorites have generally been women favored by powerful men, but in life, many of history’s more famous favorites were men promoted by a female monarch, like Elizabeth I’s Robert Dudley, Earl Leicester, or Robert Deveraux. The recent film, The Favourite, for which Olivia Coleman won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Actress, bears no relationship to Donizetti’s opera, but its subject is the competition for a monarch’s favor, and the film ingeniously defies expectations and norms.

Operas come in and out of popularity. A century ago, two of the most popular operas are almost never seen today: Charpentier’s Louise and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. Some of this is just the inevitable march of time and how that causes some things to fall away. But why did such a popular opera as La favorite disappear while others didn’t? Others of Donizetti’s operas have lived into the 21st century, like his ravishing Lucia di Lammermoor, though it is also a good example of an opera not popular for almost a century and brought back into prominence by great singers. The best explanation for La favorite’s disappearance is the public’s longtime preference for star sopranos and tenors over the lower-voiced mezzo-sopranos, as well as the late 19th century’s obsession with the massive operas of Wagner that made most of the bel canto operas seem orchestrally meek by comparison—which they are not. La favorite appears in the repertoire now for the same reasons Lucia did: because a singer with the exemplary gifts of mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton has appeared in the world to revive it.