Having found another early Meyerbeer work, Il Crociato in Egitto, only intermittently interesting, I was pleasantly surprised over and over again by Margherita d'Anjou. Is it formulaic? Yes. Is it modeled after Rossini? Of course. But why should that matter? The music is sparkling, and after all, formulas don't become formulas unless they work well - which this opera undeniably does.
A concession is in order about the libretto: it's precisely the kind of maudlin stuff that gives serious and semi-serious opera of the 1820's a bad name. We've learned to set aside disbelief with regard to female contraltos (and in some cases sopranos) playing male roles. It's a bit more difficult to swallow when a female character disguises herself as a boy and it fools the other characters; it's a grand-canyon-sized leap to think she could fool her own husband. But that's exactly what happens in Margherita. It also strains our credulity to think that Margherita's sworn enemy would suddenly and for no clear reason swear renewed allegiance to her.
But these were the sort of plots that were popular (and allowable) at the time, and we should temper our disdain, looking instead to the music to guide our opinions of the work as a whole. This score is a gorgeous bravura romp, full of everything we who love 1820's Italian opera crave - from offstage military bands to passionate romanzas, from bouyant cabalettas to buffo patter. If it sounds like an odd mix, just buy the set and you'll be convinced. Special mention should be made of Margherita's lovely - and very showy - arias, Isaura's fine duets for with Michele and Lavarenne, the trio for the three basses, and the beautiful and complex quintet in Act II. It is also amazing how well Meyerbeer integrates the buffo role of Michele into the otherwise serious matrix of the plot .
The vocalists, as is usual for an Opera Rara set, could not have been better cast for their roles. As the fugitive queen Margaret of England, Annick Massis' performance is a coloratura soprano lover's nectar and ambrosia. Her tone is pure, limpid, and bell-like, and she handles coloratura effortlessly. Bruce Ford as the philandering Duc de Lavarenne is also in fine form, singing with great expressiveness and accuracy. He also takes some far-flung excursions into the high falsetto range in the exceedingly difficult quintet in act II, an unusual feat for a tenor with a voice as low-lying as Ford's. As the cross-dressing Isaura, the gifted young mezzo Daniela Barcellona uses her rich, supple voice with great feeling, somehow managing to sound like she believes in the role despite the inherent silliness of her character's actions. At the same time, she makes hay of the technical obstacles strewn in her path by the composer. Hers is a fine portrayal, and it is unfortunate that her final rondo - which, in spite of her best efforts ends the work with a fizzle rather than a bang - is one of the least inspired pieces in the opera. Bass Alistair Miles attacks the role of Carlo as if it were the best thing since sliced pumpernickel, and he actually comes close to convincing us that it is - this even though he lacks a solo number. Fabio Prevedi charges through the buffo role of Michele with such blustering enthusiasm that it doesn't seem the least bit out of place.
Conductor David Parry is at the helm of this massive undertaking, steering the orchestra and singers with great skill. He believes in the score, and that makes all the difference. Opera Rara chose Meyerbeer scholar Mark Everist to write the notes, and he does a fine job of familiarizing us with the opera's history. The set is decadently luxurious, continuing the tradition of having an exterior box and jewel case, beautifully decorated, a thick booklet with libretto, synopsis, and essay (as well as a catalog of 19th century performances- oddly, it had last been given in New Orleans in 1854!).