Donizetti: Gemma Di Vergy / Brignoli, Agresta, Kunde, Russo, Galeazzi

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DONIZETTI Gemma di Vergy Roberto Rizzi Brignoli, cond; Maria Agresta ( Gemma ); Gregory Kunde ( Tamas ); Mario Cassi ( Conte di Vergy ); Leonardo Galazzi ( Guido ); Kremena Dilcheva ( Ida) ; Dario Russo ( Rolando ); Bergamo Musica Festival Gaetano Donizetti O & Ch BONGIOVANNI 20024 (DVD: 140:00) Live: Bergamo 2011

I certainly applaud the Donizetti Festival in Bergamo for staging a rare production of their namesake composer’s Gemma di Vergy , as seen here from the festival’s 2011 season. Pretty much neglected by opera companies in the modern age since it was championed by Montserrat Caballé in the mid-1970s, Gemma contains some little heard and quite entertaining music by composer Donizetti that deserves wider exposure. Of course Caballé, as was her wont, was not singing Donizetti’s version, but her own, with simplified and smoothed-over vocal lines replacing much of the composer’s bel canto fioratura. The Spanish diva sang the title role well enough in that style, but none of her recordings are, at least in my opinion, a truly satisfactory representation of the original opera.

The story itself, like Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda and Donizetti’s earlier Anna Bolena , tells of an aristocratic wife (here a Countess) repudiated by a husband because she has not borne an heir. The locale is France in the final years of the 100 Years’ War during the victorious ascendancy of Joan of Arc. It is instructive to note that all of these sanctimonious gents wishing to move on from barren marriages seem to have a comely lass waiting in the wings, more than ready to take up conjugal duties. Unlike Beatrice or Anna, Gemma does not go quietly or nobly into the night. She is more into the cat-fighting mode, trying to kill her new rival, the lady Ida de Gréville, and inadvertently inciting her faithful Saracen retainer Tamas (secretly in love with her) to kill the Count. Gemma spurns this rather extreme act of devotion (those crazy Saracens!) and Tamas kills himself rather than be taken by the count’s loyal followers. In fact, the opera ends quite unhappily for everyone, but in a welter of melodious, engaging music.

The Bergamo sets are simple yet effective. Painted risers and some props come and go, along with a gorgeous blue stained-glass backdrop with medieval themes. Traditional costumes are finely detailed and rich-looking, probably much too fine for war-ravaged France, but an operatic excess I can easily live with. It is when the action and singing begins on stage that the warning lights begin to go off. In fact, there is very little action, period, and what does occur seems rather amateurishly staged. The singers mostly stand and sing, and like Caballé, they don’t really do bel canto . That particular style of singing was losing cachet by 1834 when this opera premiered, but in modified form it was still central to Donizetti’s work. The lack of that type of expertise from this cast is disappointing. Young soprano Maria Agresta sings quite passionately in the demanding title role (Caballé said it was more difficult than singing three Norma s) but her voice spreads rather unpleasantly in higher register. Neither bass Leonardo Galeazzi as Guido, the Count’s retainer, nor baritone Mario Cassi as the Count really have enough voice fully to command their roles. Cassi, although good-looking in the part, could benefit from some acting lessons. The best singer seen here turns out to be veteran American tenor Gregory Kunde in the role of Saracen Tamas. Kunde’s voice occasionally displays a bit of the ravages of a long career, but he still possesses a ringing tenor top and generally turns in a fine performance. The Festival chorus is given little to do, but they sing quite satisfactorily and the orchestra is led in some brisk pacing by Maestro Roberto Rizzi Brignoli.

This is the first Bongiovanni DVD I have seen. The label’s video capture of the stage production uses pretty straightforward basic camerawork but looks professionally rendered. Sound is fine in stereo with no surround option available. Subtitle choices are limited to Italian, English, and Japanese. To my mind, despite a sincere effort here, poor Gemma is still looking for a good representative recording of her opera. This Bergamo DVD will serve to replace the Caballé discs as a place-holder until something better comes along.

FANFARE: Bill White

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: AB20024

  • UPC: 8007068200245

  • Label: Bongiovanni

  • Composer: Gaetano Donizetti

  • Conductor: Roberto Rizzi Brignoli

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Bergamo Musica Festival Chorus, Bergamo Musica Festival Orchestra

  • Performer: Dario Russo, Gregory Kunde, Kremena Dilcheva, Leonardo Galeazzi, Maria Agresta, Mario Cassi