Is Imelda de' Lambertazzi 'the most avant-garde opera Donizetti ever wrote'? In his typically informative and readable essay accompanying Opera Rara's new recording, Jeremy Commons makes an excellent case for the piece, pointing out the lack of an overture, the absence of a concertato from the first-act finale and the use of an arioso instead of an aria finale at the very end as its unusual features. For me, though, this represents only half an explanation of why this score is so exceptional. What Commons is in fact highlighting is Donizetti's inclination to truncate or completely override ottocento convention in order to increase the dramatic pressure, something which Verdi spent his entire career doing; that the older composer can be seen exploring this ideal in 1830 proves once again that without Donizetti, Verdi would have had a far less solid base on which to embark on his artistic journey.
Imelda directly precedes Anna Bolena in the composer's output, but in place of Anna's grand structures and saturation of fioriture Donizetti writes pared-down lines and smaller, dramatically-taut scenes. The plot is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, with the warring Ghibellines and Guelphs operating in the background of a pair of young lovers, one each from the opposing forces: Imelda (daughter of Orlando, praetor of Ghibelline Bologna) and Bonifacio (leader of the Guelphs). Lamberto, Imelda's nasty brother, spends his time trying to inflame his enemies and is practically the sole cause of the lovers' inevitable destruction; the one major change from Romeo and Juliet is that at the end, Orlando rejects his daughter (who has sucked the poison from Bonifacio's wound in an unsuccessful attempt to save him) instead of effecting a reconciliation with his enemies as the Prince does in the Shakespeare play.
Although a flop at its premiere, the inadequacies of the original Naples cast for whom Imelda was written actually helped to give the opera its special tinta. Unable to rely on the singers' coloratura technique (which was deemed to be deficient in several cases), Donizetti instead wrote for strong, dark voices, hence the melodies tend to be simpler than one might expect from the composer of Lucia and Lucrezia Borgia but the emphasis on the text is arguably stronger. Immediacy of expression and dramatic fluidity are two of the main characteristics of this dark piece, which certainly stands up well to the finest of Verdi's early operas.
Opera Rara's stunning recording, which was made in advance of a concert performance with the same cast at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in March 2007, is more than just another addition to the company's extensive Donizetti catalogue; it has the potential to revolutionise our ideas about how this period of Italian opera should be performed. Frankly, after having heard the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment play this score under Mark Elder, I would like to hear all Donizetti's works likewise performed on period instruments. Nothing had quite prepared me for the impact the OAE would make. Elder explains in an excellent short essay in the booklet that the brass players use natural instruments with a narrower bore, which allows them to have plenty of attack without dominating the orchestra; the string players use gut strings and moderate the use of vibrato; the clarinets and flutes are wooden, with quite a different timbre; and the drum is much smaller and is played with harder sticks. All of this makes a tremendous difference. The distinctive sounds of these period instruments, combined with period performance techniques, mean that the depth of Donizetti's compositional canvas can be perceived far more clearly than if a modern orchestra were used. It's striking how different even something as apparently mundane as the recitative between Lamberto, Orlando and Ubaldo in Act I (CD 1, Track 5) comes across: there's so much more inflection and colour in the string writing. The very beginning of the opera is similarly notable: the wind, brass and string sounds seem more clearly differentiated than they might be in a standard modern recording, enhanced by the dramatic drum rolls and evocative off-stage trumpet calls. One can only hope that Opera Rara will manage to team Elder and the OAE up again in the future; to my knowledge, there is not a more authoritatively conducted or played Donizetti opera recording currently available (even including Sir Charles Mackerras' Lucia di Lammermoor with The Hanover Band). From the rousing opening chorus (which also shows off the excellence of the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir) to the tragic finale, this is stirring stuff.
The cast, too, is extremely good. Attention inevitably rests on soprano Nicole Cabell, a star name after her success in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition and her recent debut album on Decca (soon to be followed up by a complete La bohème with Villazón and Netrebko on Deutsche Grammophon). Cabell makes a feisty and sympathetic Imelda; one has to believe that the character can have the guts to kill herself at the end, and it's easy when the role is in Cabell's hands. She can seem momentarily pushed to her limits in the tricky cavatina, making heavy weather of one or two tricky descending chromatic scales, for instance, but the sounds she produces are electric and her sense of drama is heightened once she starts the tortured duet with Bonifacio. Cabell also shows her strength in her breathtaking interruption during the first-act finale, and both her duet with Lamberto in Act II and the grand finale are equally fine.
This is an opera for two tenors, due to the situation Donizetti found in Naples, so both the elder and junior Lambertazzi are sung by tenors (in fact, in the original 1830 cast the singer playing the role of the father was younger than the one playing his son!). Here Frank Lopardo gives what seems to me his best performance to date, his slightly dark baritonal sound ideally suited to the role of Orlando. He has the right combination of authority and gravitas, so that when he bursts into the opening scene where the chorus of Ghibellines are discussing the ongoing conflicts in great distress, he can make his mark. Slightly weaker, though still very good, is Massimo Giordano as his son, Lamberto. Giordano has a sense of style but for my taste the sound is a little lightweight for so villainous a character. One of the problems of the distribution of voices is that Donizetti gave the role of the lover to the baritone and that of the iniquitous brother to the tenor. The result is that when one is listening to the piece without the libretto, the duet with the baritone lover resembles one of Verdi's father-daughter duets and that with the tenor brother sounds more like an impassioned love duet than a vengeful confrontation. A richer voice than Giordano's might have alleviated the problem; similarly, James Westman's Bonifacio is arguably on the heavy side, especially when cast opposite Cabell. Nevertheless, both Westman and Giordano are within the spirit of the performance and by no means let it down. Brindley Sherratt is also excellent as Ubaldo, completing a strong line-up.
Opera Rara have done it again. Just as the company produced the must-have opera recording of 2007 in Dom Sébastien, Imelda de' Lambertazzi is guaranteed to be a highlight of 2008. Don't hesitate to get your hands on it as soon as possible.