Given his prolific output, it’s hardly surprising that Donizetti could be a little hit and miss. However, popular reaction at the time has proven an unreliable weathervane and Il Paria (The Outcast) is a good case in point.

Il Paria album artwork

Written for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1829, it had a lot riding on it: it was the first opera Donizetti had written since being appointed Director of the Royal Theatres in Naples and it was to be a royal gala premiere to boot. Alas, a combination of an awkward audience afraid to applaud unless the King gave the royal sign of approval, high ticket prices for subsequent performances, and a work perhaps too forward-looking for the Neapolitan punters resulted in the opera’s demise after only six outings. A pity as the cast was excellent – Rubini was the tenor with Tosi and Lablache as his lover and father respectively – and the score, as revealed here in Opera Rara’s wonderfully recorded revival, is most impressive. His next work for Naples was the Elizabethan melodrama Il Castello di Kenilworth, but, as the composer wrote to his mentor Gionanni Simone Mayr: “Between ourselves, I wouldn’t give away a single piece of Paria for the whole of Il Castello… But there we are. Fate is a strange thing.”

Il Paria was the first time Donizetti’s had attempted a tragic ending. It was also the first time he’d tackled an ‘exotic’ location – the opera is set in India – but don’t expect the faux-Easternisms of Lakmé. In fact, the temples of 15th-century India inspired a score that blends grandly scored set pieces with passages of considerable delicacy inspired by nature, night and the sultry subcontinental outdoors.

More problematic is the plot. The Brahmin High Priest Akebare has promised his daughter Neala to the valiant warrior Idamore. The latter, however, conceals a dark secret: he is a Pariah, a member of a caste abhorred by the Brahmins. When Idamore’s semi-estranged father Zarete forces him to reveal his secret to Neala, she agrees to abscond with her lover after the wedding, but a series of missed appointments leads to it all coming out in public. Idamore is duly condemned to die and Neala insists on joining him. All well and good, but the motivation is all over the shop. Akebare seems to hate Idamore even before he knows he’s a Pariah, so why does he insist on him marrying his daughter? And why does Neala feel so trepidacious about being made to marry the man she loves? It’s all a little baffling, which makes this splendid recoding most likely the only way you’ll get to experience the work for now.

Sir Mark Elder is an experienced Donizettian with a keen instinct for how to shape this music ensuring maximum dramatic thrust but also spotlighting the composer’s felicitous orchestral effects. The priestly choruses and the wedding march pack a wonderful punch but Elder also brings out the atmospheric qualities in the tomb-haunted meetings of father and son and the nocturnal tryst of the two lovers.

As Neala, Russian coloratura Albina Shagimuratova proves she’s a lot more than simply a spinner of pretty roulades. Her smooth, creamy soprano caresses her opening cavatina, “Parea che mentre l’àloe,” before launching into the delicious cabaletta “Ah, che un raggio di speranza” complete with delicate flute and harp accompaniment. She goes on to give a classy, emotionally engaging performance throughout.

American tenor René Barbera is quite a find as Idamore. Singing à la Rubini – that is without chesting the top notes – his Act I cabaletta, “Fin dove sorgono” is a miracle of lightness with a terrifying array of demanding top C Sharps, each one attacked from below followed by a perilous trilling descent. In the opera house this would merit a standing ovation.

The villainous Akebare is well taken by the Croation bass-baritone Marko Mimica, his voice curling wickedly around the consonants. Less exciting – and seemingly less engaged – is Georgian bass Misha Kiria as Idamore’s father Zarete whose voice struggles here and there towards the bottom of the range.

While it perhaps lacks the concentrated lyricism and endlessly memorable melodies to be found in a work like Lucia, Il Paria nevertheless has a great deal going for it and repays repeated encounters, especially in a top-notch performance like this. Top notch engineering too, and the usual splendid sleeves notes courtesy of Roger Parker.

Due for release on 15 January 2021

Composer: Donizetti
Work: Il Paria
Performers: Albina Shagimuratova s, René Barbera t, Misha Kiria b, Marko Mimica bar, Britten Sinfonia/Sir Mark Elder
Label: Opera Rara 9293800602 (2CD)

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