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Donizetti Dom Sebastien

Zayda Vessalina Kasarova

Dom Sebastien Giuseppe Filanoti

Dom Juan de Sylva Alastair Miles

Abayaldos Simon Keenlyside

Camoens Carmelo Corrado Caruso

The Royal Opera House Orchestra & Chorus / cond Mark Elder


Opera Rara ORC33 - Recorded September 2005 3 CDs 176 minutes



Donizetti went out like a lion with his last opera Dom Sebastien, roi due Portugal , a highly dramatic story conceived on an epic scale - requiring a huge ensemble and half a dozen lavish sets.


The curtain rises to reveal the royal fleet is preparing to set sail to join the Crusades. the scene shifts to Morocco where the Portuguese are defeated in battle, Sebastien is wounded but saved at the point of death by Zayda, an exotic Moorish princess. In disguise he returns to Lisbon only to find himself witnessing his own mock funeral in Lisbon 's Cathedral Square .


When he tries to reveal his identity he is dragged away to a subterranean torture chamber. In what must be one of the most terrifying courtroom scenes in the whole of opera, the Grand Inquisitor leads a long procession of masked, black robed officials and the trial begins. Zayda appears to support the king's story, and just as it looks as though this will win the day, her jealous husband Abayaldos storms in denouncing her as an adulteress. Both Zayda and Sebastien are imprisoned.


In the final act the drama twists backwards and forwards as various terms for their release are offered. Suddenly the poet Camoens arrives at the head of an irregular militia to free them by force. As they descend to a waiting boat a guard cuts the rope ladder sending them crashing to his death. The Grand Inquisitor has won, but Camoens gets the last word: Gloire a Dom Sebastien!


Donizetti provided music to match the scale of the action. The funeral march is one of his greatest tunes (it turns up in a slightly unexpected quotation in Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) and Camoen's patriotic lament O Lisbonne is justly famous.


It calls for singers of the highest calibre, and Opera Rara have assembled just such a cast for this recording. All the principals excel themselves. Simon Keenlyside turns Abayaldos into force to be reckoned with and Alistair Miles is surely the most sinister of all Grand Inquisitors. Amongst the smaller roles John Upperton (Dom Antonio) caught my ear, with absolutely clear diction.


Mark Elder lovingly leads the orchestra and chorus through the big ensembles building a magnificent fullness of sound. The ballet sequences were recorded separately, but the sound engineers have balanced the acoustic to match seamlessly.


The whole thing is packaged and illustrated in Opera Rara's usual lavish style, though with not quite their usual attention to detail in the printing of the libretto for example in the battle scene the chorus Du sang! Du sang!. is shown as repeated at the end of the section, though this is sensibly cut in the recording to keep the sung dialogue between Zayda and Abayaldos flowing.

But this is a minor quibble compared with the excellence of the whole.


Serena Fenwick