Composed at the height of Donizetti's career, Belisario followed Lucia di Lammermoor. Salvatore Cammarano's libretto focuses on a Byzantine general brought down by his wife, who believes he has caused the death of their son. After returning in triumph to Byzantium, Belisario is charged with filicide and blinded before he is sent into exile with his daughter, Irene. After he encounters the son he thought he had slain, the blind general leads the Byzantine forces in battle but sustains a mortal wound. Before he dies, Antonina confesses her guilt in a final scena of remorse and anguish. Donizetti fashioned a score filled with dashing military marches and festive music. He gave Antonina an imposing entrance aria—commercially recorded by Montserrat Caballé—and a great scena finale. The first-act duet for Belisario and his son contains music of interest but proves inferior to the extended duet for the general and his loyal daughter in the second act, which unfolds in contrasting sections filled with melodic pathos.
Unlike Maria Stuarda or Lucrezia Borgia, Belisario has not claimed a place on the periphery of the repertory. Belisario sailed into Venice's Teatro La Fenice on the bel canto wave that swept so many of Donizetti's long-neglected operas back into the repertory in the 1950s and 1960s. The 1969 revival boasted a strong cast—Giuseppe Taddei and Leyla Gencer as the Byzantine general and his vindictive consort, Antonina—in a spare but imaginative production by Alberto Fasini. The radio broadcast of the Venice Belisario was quickly issued on vinyl (MRF 37-S) and has subsequently been released several times on compact disc. A year after the Venice revival, Gencer and Renato Bruson brought the opera to Bergamo in a production also released on compact disc (Hunt 586). Another major revival followed in 1981 when the Teatro Colón cast Mara Zampieri and Bruson in the leading roles. That production was quickly issued on LP (HRE 385) and has also circulated on CD in the underground. Now Myto legitimizes the Buenos Aires Belisario in a commercial release.
By the time they appeared in the Venice Belisario, both Taddei and Gencer were in vocal decline. The baritone tends to lose control of his voice—a wide vibrato wavers unevenly on most sustained tones. Gencer sings with commanding style, but crude glottal attacks disfigure her performance, further marred by the unruly gaps between her neutral middle voice and her hollow bottom and harsh top. Even her pianissimos can sound unsupported and effortful. Do Zampieri and Bruson provide a viable alternative?
Zampieri is something of an anomaly—an Italian soprano who sounds as if she has been schooled in Germany. She tends to whiten her voice and iron out her [End Page 182] vibrato. Although ruthlessly controlled, her singing generates genuine excitement. In the scena e cavatina that introduces Antonina, her voice rings out keenly, with a shining tone. The recitative reveals her command of canto declamato. Zampieri meticulously shapes the larghetto, attacking the notes cleanly and shading the dynamics with exemplary control. But her singing, for all its polish, lacks variety and complexity. Unable to sustain a true legato, she pecks at individual notes and fails to bind them into a seamless arch of sound. The allegro reveals her lack of a reliable trill but also displays her thrusting attack and keen articulation of the notes. There's a big cut before she interpolates a high note Donizetti did not write. The audience reacts with thunderous applause.
The soprano rises to the challenges of the grand scene that caps Donizetti's opera. She sculpts the recitative in shining notes and varies her tone nicely. Zampieri sounds fully engaged. In the larghetto she sings softly but in a détaché style that emphasizes individual tones. Then, in the maestoso trio linking the larghetto with the final allegro, Zampieri spins out a magical line in delicate, soft tones. At the end, she attacks "Egli è spento" with a blazing intensity that draws an ovation from the audience.
Bruson commands the full, generous sound and the suave vocal control essential for this bel canto baritone role. But he...