Gaetano Donizetti – Francesca di Foix
CAST: Il Re (The King): Pietro Spagnoli, Il Duca (The Duke): Bruce Ford, Il Conte (The Count): Alfonso Antoniozzi, Francesca di Foix: Annick Massis, Edmondo: Jennifer Larmore
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Antonello Allemandi, conductor
Opera Rara, 2004
Although Françoise de Foix is an historical character who lived in Renaissance France and who is remembered as one of the lovers of King Francis I, Gaetano Donizetti and his librettist Domenico Gilardoni (who was to provide the composer also with the libretto for his next opera, La romanzesca e l’uomo nero) give a sweetened version of the story and their Francesca di Foix is a virtuous and unjustly slandered woman, who went to the French Court only to prove to the King that she is a real beauty and not a lame and uneducated creature as her jealous husband claimed.
Gilardoni’s Francesca di Foix is inspired by a libretto written by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly and Emmanuel Mercier-Dupaty for Henry Montan Berton’s opéra-comique Françoise de Foix, which premiered in Paris in 1809. Donizetti’s Francesca premiered in Naples, at Teatro San Carlo, in 1831 and is not a pretentious or elaborated opera and it rather reveals the composer’s wish to fulfil his contract with the impresario of the Teatro, Domenico Barbaja, with little effort. Nonetheless, Donizetti was generous with his characters who have at least one aria or concertato to sing and the title role, created at the premiere by the famous primadonna Luigia Boccabadati, is provided with some delightful music.
It cannot but be considered a lucky choice to entrust Francesca’s role to lovely soprano Annick Massis. Massis has not a vocal timbre that can be considered classically beautiful, but nonetheless she portrays a coquettish and cunning Francesca in a way that reminds of another of the belcanto heroines she contributed to revive, Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran. Francesca, as her elder sister (I call her so because Rossini’s opera premiered ten years before Donizetti’s) is an extremely feminine, adorable character even in the few moments of anger, as in the middle of the duet with the Duke when she invokes «Vendetta!» («Revenge!»), and gives prominence to her charming side with the help of secure coloratura and virtually flawless technique. The combination between the singer’s temperament and the exquisiteness of the music gives the impression that this opera has been composed for Massis herself.
The role of the King is performed by a not less fine singer, baritone Pietro Spagnoli. He stands out immediately from his entry (Grato accolse i vostri accenti), which takes place after a chorus, a duet and an aria for the most part ironic, as a serious character who makes clear his royal presence once and for all with an extremely elegant voice and phrasing and distinguishes himself for a timbre of rare purity and beauty.
Tenor Bruce Ford (as the Duke) is better in funny moments as the duet with Francesca (Signore, a dir il vero), where hilarity disguises some of the weaknesses that will later affect his aria Donne, che ognor più bella. Alfonso Antoniozzi embodies the role of the Count well and sings it with more irony than seriousness, as it can be listened in Che vita, dalle cacce, while Jennifer Larmore is a good Edmondo apart from some unpleasant defects in diction (her “c” and “g” sound a little odd to an Italian ear).
Antonello Allemandi’s conduction is the last pearl to be mentioned but it is him that gives the final touch to Francesca di Foix and that gives the work the character that makes it amusing and enjoyable.