When Donizetti died in 1848, he left one incomplete opera, Le Duc d’Albe, and a complete but unperformed one-act farce, Rita (also known as Deux hommes et une femme).
Composed in 1841 for Paris and later adapted for Italy, it fell victim to circumstances and had to wait until 1860 for its first performance – at the Opéra-Comique, the theatre that originally commissioned it.
Its Italian-language premiere followed in Naples in 1876 but it has taken until now, with this lovingly and lavishly produced new recording, for the work to be made available to modern ears in its original form.
Rita marks a renaissance for Opera Rara, a label that faced an uncertain future after the death in 2005 of its founder and spiritus rector, Patric Schmid. It now has a new artistic director – eminent Donizettian Mark Elder, who conducts the Hallé Orchestra in this recording – and a fresh set of advisers dedicated to fulfilling Schmid’s goals.
Opera Rara is virtually the only company still making studio recordings of complete operas, while seeking a perfection of performance in respect of vocal, stylistic and textual authenticity.
Rita can hardly be described as a masterpiece, but you cannot mistake its French comic style, with spoken dialogue between the musical numbers, or the sense of improvisation that imbues Donizetti’s music at its most relaxed.
The plot is a frivolous three-hander about a temperamental woman who has married a second time after mistakenly assuming her first husband has died. The latter’s reappearance provokes a competition between the two men to see who will win the wife neither of them wants.
While it might have been preferable to have native French speakers, Katarina Karnéus, Barry Banks and Christopher Maltman bring Rita to life with infectious spirit.