I had never heard La Favorite live, neither in French nor in Italian, and this production, with a dream cast, in Munich seemed like the perfect occasion. The story is set in Spain, in the 14th century during La reconquista, i.e. the war against the Moors which led (in 1492, almost two centuries later) to their forced departure from Spain. The “favorite” of the title is Léonor, the mistress of King Alfonso XI of Castile, whom he loves dearly, to the point of plotting to repudiate his current wife in order to marry her. This creates all sorts of friction with the aristocracy, and, more importantly, with the church, represented, in the opera, by Balthazar (the prior of a monastery).
The whole plot revolves around the dishonorable status of Léonor: she is despised and rejected by the King’s court, by the Church, by the whole world. The young Fernand falls in love with her and, without knowing who she is, starts a secret affair with her. Balthazar attacks her in public, forcing the King to leave her and send her away from the court. Fernand goes to war and comes back a war hero; in the meantime the King finds out about the secret affair and, as a revenge, gives Léonor as a wife to Fernand, making him a marquis. Right after the marriage Fernand finds out that she is the mistress of the king and goes COMPLETELY berserk. His honor is tainted, his life is worthless, all is lost. He renounces the title, the money, abandons her and goes back to the monastery to become a monk.
Now, a story like this just makes no sense whatsoever in a modern world. And instead, you guessed it, the production by Niemermaier and Müller-Elmau set the scene in modern times, with modern costumes. It’s completely nonsensical: the outrage, the honor, the tension between Church and state, nothing makes sense in a modern day setting. To add to this nonsense, the scenes were extremely ugly, they looked like they were thrown together by a (not very talented) 12 year old. A bunch of chairs is constantly on stage, for people to step around, or sit in, or trip over, most of the times. There is no sense of direction, people move around on stage as if lost and trying to find their way. The music of the ballets in act 3 was not cut, but there were no ballets: Léonor and the King sit alone as in an audience, supposedly watching some sort of show. She is bored and upset, the King is excited and amused, and ends up touching her and forcing her to perform sexual stuff on him while he watches. I have honestly no recollection of an uglier production in my life. I would have MUCH preferred a concert version.
But the music! Oh, the music!!
The orchestra was incredibly good, it gets better and better it seems. Karel Mark Chichon managed to give a unified view of this work, highlighting the small “leitmotivs” in the score and giving great support to the singers. He also tried his best to keep the chorus a tempo, succeeding most of the times.
For the first time I heard Elīna Garanča live (about time I’d say), her voice is absolutely beautiful! She has an impressive legato, a good uniformity, and a perfect control. Also, she looks absolutely stunning. What I personally found lacking was a bit of intensity. She comes across as cold, at times, she seemed to lack commitment. But her voice is extremely beautiful, and I am very curious to hear her as Eboli in Don Carlos this fall.
Fernand was Matthew Polenzani, who I heard many years ago in Mozart; he made a strong impression. I was even more impressed last night. His voice is a bit too white for Fernand, I think, and his color is not always round and beautiful. But his overall performance was extremely good. He has an unbelievable projection. His voice pierces the air and travels like a train, without losing any power. His best moments are the lyrical, melancholic ones, but in the furore parts his voice, albeit too white, does come through as powerful and commanding. I also enjoyed his interpretation: his acting style is a bit old-fashioned, but he is extremely committed, and managed to convey all the contrasting emotions of the character.
Mariusz Kwiecień was Alphonse, the King of Castile. His baritone is smooth and round, his legato is good, and he also looks absolutely stunning. The character of the King was one of the most mistreated by this idiotic production: he looked and acted like a bully, a mafia boss with no dignity and no discernible intelligence. Kwiecień did his best with this lot, and musically his character did come through: his voice is really extremely good.
Balthazar was the Finnish bass Mika Kares, who has an impressive instrument, very flexible and powerful also in the low notes. His prior is very commanding, both vocally and physically (he’s really tall), and his voice comes through also in the middle of the richest ensembles.
Inès, Léonor’s confidante, was Elsa Benoit, who we have already heard in Semiramide as Azema: her very high, bright soprano was a nice contrast to Garanča’s velvety mezzo. She added tasteful variations to her aria and instantly became a crowd favorite.
The highlight of the evening was, of course, act 3 finale. The musical writing is fantastic, so much that Donizetti used it at least twice, here and in Maria Stuarda; the performance was amazing. And the attack of act 4, with the organ coming in loud as hell, from nowhere, without any pause, no curtain, nothing, was absolutely great. The only good idea of this production.