The three performances of Donizetti’s Belisario recently given in Winston-Salem’s Stevens Center by the NC School of the Arts and the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute almost did not happen. An extensive program note about the score by Nancy E. Goldsmith and comments from the stage by conductor James Albritten related a musicological detective mystery worthy of a TV drama. Preparations had begun using a standard piano-vocal score from Kalmus. As summer ended, the institutions that ought to have had performing scores did not. Venice’s La Fenice had lost its score in the great fire, and La Scala did not have one, either. With the help of University of Chicago scholar Philip Gossett (general editor of the critical editions of the works of Verdi and Rossini) and his Italian colleague Gabriele Dotto, Ottavio Sbragia, who was working on a critical edition of Belisario, was located. By chance, he had completed the conductor’s score in July, and the presenters obtained it in November. Orchestra parts were desperately needed by January, so spurred on by his life-long obsession with the opera, Sbragia met the deadline – and was present at the January 28 performance, before which he received prolonged and hearty applause – an uncommon reward for a painstaking musicologist!

Reviewer preparations were limited to a decent sounding pirated edition of a 1969 “live” performance at La Fenice that featured dramatic soprano Leyla Gencer and an Italian-only cued libretto. The NCSA performance featured excellent and well-timed English supertitles prepared by the NCSA’s Nancy E. Goldsmith and generated by a PC. A published libretto with translations is needed. A Google search turned up three Italian-editions, available online, and the Holt Collection of Opera Librettos in the UNC Chapel Hill Library Rare Book Collection turned up three more – in Italian only.

The tragic plot of Belisario will appeal to lovers of the Greek classics, such as the plays of Sophocles, and it is less convoluted than a Handel opera seria. Belisario is so loyal to the Byzantine Empire that he once ordered his servant Procopius to slay his own son because the general had dreamed that this person would lead a rebellion. The servant instead spared him and left him at the seashore. After the servant’s deathbed confession, Belisario’s wife, Antonnia, desiring vengeance, allows treasonous forgeries to be added to the general’s letters. Convicted of treason and parricide, Belisario is blinded and exiled, accompanied by his fiercely devoted daughter, Irene. Alamiro, a former prisoner of war who was freed by the general, has been like a son to him. He leads a rebellion against Byzantium. Miraculously revealed as Belisario’s presumed-dead son, the two join to defeat the rebels. Shot by the retreating forces, Belisario is brought before the Emperor for a surprisingly brief death scene. Most of the last act is taken up with Antonnia’s grief for her betrayal, providing a choice opportunity for a gifted dramatic soprano.

The role of Antonnia, which runs the gamut of wronged motherhood, fiery vengeance, and abject grief, is a juicy one for a dramatic soprano. CVNC has chronicled the growth of Emily Newton in numerous roles at the NCSA and with Piedmont Opera. This role allowed her to explore the darker sides of a complex character. To her evenly balanced voice has been added a rock solid base ideal for big roles. Intonation was precise, and her high notes were glorious, whether gently floated or soaring at full throttle to nail home a dramatic moment. Even without singing a word, baritone Alphonso Cherry dominated the stage with “presence” for which any performer would die! His well-balanced voice easily filled the hall, whether he was singing quietly with tender affection or in a towering rage. Mezzo-soprano Dawn Pierce combined a marvelously even-toned voice and superb diction with total identification with the role of Irene. Try as I may, I cannot warm to the timbre of tenor Scott Mize. He brought solid musicianship to the role of Alamiro, has a voice than can fill a hall, and his Act I duet with Belisario was excellent. Age will add further depth to the fine, sturdy bass of Jonathan Merritt, who portrayed Emperor Guistiniano with quiet dignity. As the perfidious conspirator Eutropio, John Kawa made good use of a solid but light tenor voice. The minor roles were taken by Kristen Yarborough (Eudora, Irene’s confidant), Erich Barbera (Ottario, the rebel leader), and Joshua Hudson (a centurion and a messenger). Newton, Pierce, Merritt, and Yarborough are students of Marilyn Taylor, while Cherry studied with Allbritten, Kawa, with Marion Pratnicki, and Mize, with Glenn Siebert.

Set Designer Rob Eastman-Mullins’ spare sets were as imaginative as they were brilliantly effective. A multilevel square raked stage was arranged with one corner overhanging the orchestra pit mid-way. Stylized architectural elements were quickly lowered and removed from the rafters to suggest Belisario’s home, the Byzantine Court, or the nearby wilderness. A narrow drapery was removed to reveal a bronze martial statue of Belisario. A huge monolithic head with its face on the stage was an apt metaphor for the prison scene, featuring Belisario and his daughter Irene. Eel-like fish-headed banners on long pikes were striking as they preceded the hero’s first triumphal entrance. Bravo!

Stage Director Steven LaCosse’s blocking of the extensive scenes with chorus and handling of the clashes of wills among the main characters were masterful. There was no distracting stage business. Unlike a recent European touring company’s production (of La Traviata), dramatic involvement was closely melded with the music for all the major roles and the minor ones, too, such as the deep empathy conveyed by Jonathan Frodella as Eusebio, the jailer. The NCSA and UNCG have enviable records for this vital quality.

After some slight tentativeness in the brass, the NCSA orchestra settled down for a polished and well-balanced performance. Donizetti’s score has little trace of generic note-spinning, and there is unusually attractive writing for the horns and woodwinds. The strings were silken smooth. Allbritten maintained tight ensemble between the stage and pit. The gorgeous acoustics of the 1,200-seat Stevens Center, with its deep and terraced orchestra pit, is exactly the type of facility that Greensboro and the Raleigh-Durham area need to foster opera at its best. Only a larger and deeper stage could be desired.

Based upon this production of the new critical edition, past commentators have been wrong to dismiss Belisario as second-rate Donizetti. William Ashbrook’s Donizetti quotes a letter from the composer to a Paris music publisher: “Belisario is less thoroughly worked out (than Lucia), but I know that in the theatre it had an effect….” Compared to Lucia, this opera is more dramatically compact: the build-up of the tragedy is almost as sure as Puccini’s, in Tosca, and the scoring is more consistently interesting. While there’s no mad scene, there is a big juicy part for the dramatic soprano, a solid part for the mezzo-soprano, and a complex and wide-ranging role for the baritone. Fine smaller parts for bass and tenor add spice. With the new critical edition scores now available, perhaps Eve Queler and her Opera Orchestra of New York will introduce the opera to Carnegie Hall. It is an ideal opera for music festivals. It is too bad this fine production could not be taken on tour or released on a DVD.