In the middle of the nineteenth century many a composer dreamed of fame and fortune in Paris, where the high artistic standards of the city’s singers and musicians, meticulously directed and lavishly staged productions, the censor’s relatively permissive red pencil and, last but not least, the generous fees that composers could command were the main reasons why a whole series of Italian composers were drawn to Paris throughout this period: Rossini in 1824, Bellini in 1833, Donizetti in 1838 and Verdi in 1847. Donizetti’s decision to abandon Naples – his home since 1822 – and to settle in Paris, where he struck out in a strikingly new direction, was motivated not only by the advantages afforded by the city’s theatres and by their outstanding reputation but also by a number of private and professional factors, including the death of his wife Virginia, his barely adequate income as a composition teacher at the Naples Conservatory and his disappointment at not being appointed the Conservatory’s director. Of additional importance in this context was the refusal of the Neapolitan censor to sanction a production of his opera Poliuto in the city.
In Paris, conversely, Lucia di Lammermoor was already winning plaudits in a French adaptation, while Roberto Devereux and L’elisir d’amore had both been staged in the city to scarcely less acclaim. Berlioz even spoke of a veritable Donizettian ‘invasion’ in this context: ‘It is no longer possible to speak of the opera houses of Paris but only of those of Monsieur Donizetti.’ In May 1838 Donizetti was approached by the director of the famous Paris Opéra, Charles Duponchel, inviting him to write two new works for his company. Donizetti accepted. His contract with Duponchel specified that his first work for the Opéra would be a revised version of Poliuto in a French adaptation titled Les Martyrs, while the second new production would be Le Duc d’Albe to a libretto by Eugène Scribe.
By the time that Donizetti arrived in Paris for the planned start of the rehearsals, much of the score of Le Duc d’Albe was already finished. By now, however, there had been a change of direction at the Opéra, and Duponchel’s successor, Léon Pillet, decided to drop Le Duc d’Albe, at least for the present. Instead, he persuaded the composer to take another look at his earlier opera L’Ange de Nisida and adapt it as La Favorite to meet the needs of the Paris Opéra. L’Ange de Nisida had been a commission from the Théâtre de la Renaissance, but that particular theatre had gone bankrupt before the work could be staged there.
Two librettists were chosen by the director of the Paris Opéra to work on La Favorite: Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz, with additional help from Eugène Scribe. Scribe was drafted in partly to compensate him for the abandonment of Le Duc d’Albe, partly so that the others could profit from his ample experience as a librettist. Adapting L’Ange de Nisida as La Favorite involved expanding the three acts of the original to four and adding the sort of large-scale ballet that was obligatory at the Paris Opéra. Additionally, all the comic elements were removed, a few of the relationships between the characters were changed and the action was relocated from fifteenth-century Naples to the Kingdom of Castile in the fourteenth century. Historically speaking, La Favorite is set during the turbulent years of the Spanish Reconquista, when the European mainland was won back from the Moors, but the historical background has little influence on the action, being little more than a convenient setting for the relationship between the king, his favourite Léonor and his rival, the novice Fernand. There are two historical characters: King Alfonso XI, whose reign from 1312 to 1350 was notable for political and economic successes overshadowed by the power of the Church, and his mistress Eleanor de Guzmán. Otherwise, the librettists ignored a number of authenticated historical details, notably the fact that Eleanor was the king’s lover for twenty years and that she bore him ten children only for her to be executed after his death.
In spite of its complicated genesis, La Favorite remains one of Donizetti’s finest music dramas, a self-contained work that found him at the very pinnacle of his powers as an orchestrator. Described by Le Corsaire as a ‘felicitous blend of the Italian and French operatic idioms’, it was first performed at the Paris Opéra on 2 December 1840 but proved no more than a succès d’estime, finally triumphing in the capital only after it had chalked up a number of successes in the French provinces. By 1918 it had achieved almost 700 performances at the Opéra, maintaining a place for itself as one of the staples of the repertory. Outside France, too, it was successful, albeit in much mutilated adaptations, not least because nineteenth-century censors were unwilling to countenance a plot in which a monk renounces his cloistered life out of his love for a woman. Arturo Toscanini hailed the work as ‘all beautiful’. As for ‘the last act’, he felt that ‘every note is a masterpiece’.
Translated by Stewart Spencer