It’s make your mind up time at the monastery in St James of Compostela. Songe à tes voeux! (But what about your vows!) booms Léonor de Guzman at her former lover, Fernand, who has just taken holy orders but is suddenly having second thoughts on seeing her reappear. Cue, inevitably, audience tittering.
Unintentionally comical moments are frequent in many 19th-century operas so a good director’s first task is to avoid adding to the mirth. Valérie Nègre’s new staging of a work Donizetti wrote for Paris in 1840 does quite the opposite, triggering gales of laughter with mincing choreography for the chorus and complicated manoeuvres with yards of fabric. It is as if she has spent more time intellectualising the opera’s themes for the programme book than trying to make the best case for this convoluted story.
She might invoke extenuating circumstances. The libretto was cobbled together from various sources and the production team has suffered the same fate. Nègre took over the project after New York artist Andrea Blum had already devised resolutely modern sets of metal bars, dangling light bulbs and a huge green tree backdrop. These may (or may not) make an impact in some warehouse gallery but are singularly unappealing as an accompaniment to a romantic opera. Throw in 19th-century costumes, incoherent sticks of furniture and truly woeful handling of chorus movements and you have a dog’s breakfast of a production on your hands. La Favorite may not be Donizetti’s best opera but it still deserves better.
The production’s bad luck also hit the singers. Two, including Alice Coote in the title role, succumbed to flu during rehearsals. Even convalescing, she still makes a feisty Léonor and nails all the notes but I doubt bel canto is her best repertoire choice any more than it was for Janet Baker, whose stylistic mantle she appears to have assumed.
Ludovic Tézier’s Alphonse XI fills the house with cavernous tone but he now seems more focused on producing a big sound than phrasing idiomatically. The truly French flavour in a work more often given in its Italian translation comes from Marc Laho’s Fernand, a late replacement. He lacks the stamina to do all the music justice but shapes his lines with consummate style and first-class diction, turning Ange si pur into a poignantly tender prayer.
Paolo Arrivabeni coaxes some sensitive playing from the Orchestre national de France but too much of his conducting is strangely lumpy and leaden.