A product of Donizetti's second sojourn in Paris, La favorite has long been neglected in its original French version of 1840. Yet as the Chelsea Opera Group showed in this spirited, if not exactly refined concert performance, the piece really benefits from being sung in French, rather than the Italian translation of 1842 (La favorita, famously recorded by Pavarotti in his prime).
Whereas the Italian censors emasculated the themes of sex and religion from the libretto, the original French foregrounds them, both separately and at the same time. The latter happens most notably in the fourth act, when an organ plays chorale-type music one moment while the novice Fernand muses on his hopeless love for Léonor the next.
The French libretto also has the benefit of the much smoother, more sensuous language for which the music was actually written. Admittedly, this aspect of the COG's performance was one of the weakest, but the strongest performers truly underlined the importance of using the French version.
While the anti-bel canto brigade would probably scoff at the composer's employment of conventional accompaniment patterns and the risible storyline, La favorite represents Donizetti at the peak of his career. The tinta is brilliantly controlled, with the religious and secular locations depicted with completely different colours, and the development of energy over the course of each act is exactly right, culminating in riveting second- and third-act finales. The vocal writing is also very expressive, Donizetti by this time moving towards the more highly romanticised mid-ottocento style.
By far the standout performance at the COG's presentation came from Liora Grodnikaite in the title role. The Lithuanian mezzo had an outstanding time as a Young Artist at the Royal Opera House, later becoming a Principal Artist, and made a well-received appearance with the COG in June as Massenet's Cendrillon. This performance made it clear why she was so acclaimed. The only soloist to perform without a score, she was totally inside the music, and the character too. Like the title character in Bellini's La Straniera, Léonor ('La favorite') represents Otherness in the opera, and Grodnikaite depicted that perfectly with her sensuous tone and dignified demeanour.
Michael Spyres wasn't on anything like the same level as Fernand. He has an impressively natural, unforced vocal production until reaching the top, where the strain was worrying. Several fluffed entries and an uncharismatic, score-bound attitude did not help either, but there was something honest and solid about most of his performance that helped carry him through the evening, even if the role does seem to be somewhat out of his reach at the moment.
Stephen Gadd was in his element as King Alphonse, communicating throughout and mixing classical precision with a sense of text, and he made sure he used his vocal resources to the full at the right moments. Stephanie Corley was a sweet, if not especially large-voiced Inès, while Saša Čano's Balthazar suffered from a very forced vocal delivery. Covering for Wynne Evans at short notice, though, Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks was a very respectable Don Gaspar.
Both the chorus and orchestra had their weak moments, with some very exposed string passages, split choral entries and tuning problems in various places. However, Gianluca Maciano's conducting was admirably lucid and as a whole, they make a lively, visceral sound that more than does justice to this sort of piece, and the two big concerted finales were truly exciting. The Chelsea Opera Group's next two performances – Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur with Nelly Miricioiu on 15 February and the 1857 version of Simon Boccanegra on 7 June, both at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – are hotly anticipated.