The Royal Opera’s new season began with a nice big surprise: Donizetti’s last opera, Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal, written for Paris in 1843, shortly before his fatal syphilitic illness set in. Far from there being any traces of failing powers, it strikes me as the strongest serious opera he wrote, even though it has a ramshackle libretto by Scribe which means that it is one of those works whose plots are best unravelled after you’ve listened to it — the Royal Opera, as has become its habit, did its first opera in concert form only which, all things considered, was probably a good idea. A magnificent cast had been assembled, and Mark Elder had evidently imparted to them his devotion to the work, which he has been extensively advertising in newspaper and radio interviews in the past few weeks. Fortunately Opera Rara was recording it, and any opera lover who didn’t go should get the set when it appears, if only to have their view of Donizetti, whether favourable or negative, sharply adjusted.
The first surprise occurs immediately, in the opera’s brief prelude, which sounds like a variant version of the last of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Dom Sébastien was a big favourite in Vienna, and nowhere else, for 40 years, and clearly made a marked impression on the arch-purveyor of funeral marches with major-minor oscillations and unnerving mixtures of the banal and the tragic. In Donizetti, the fully-fledged funeral march in Act III is part of the mock-obsequies arranged by the villainous Dom Antonio for his supposedly dead predecessor, so the sardonic element is a clever device, and a bizarre source for some of the effects which have made Mahler so popular. Once the opera proper gets under way, it soon manifests its freedom from the formulas which often make his Italian operas seem to be proto-computer-generated, with Dom Sébastien, King of Portugal, explaining his imperialist ambitions to his wicked uncle Antonio, while the jolly mariners sound as if they’ve strolled in from a contemporaneous Verdi opera — in general, it is astonishing how much more sophisticated Dom Sébastien is than any Verdi opera until many years later.