Saturday evening conductor Will Crutchfield revived Donizetti’s La Favorite—unheard in New York for fifteen years—as part of his invaluable series “Bel Canto at Caramoor” leading an appealing cast and making a strong case as he had two years ago with Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes and Don Carlos for returning to the original version.  

Although the New York premiere in 1845 had been in French, all performances by the Metropolitan Opera have been of La Favorita in Italian, as have the pair by Opera Orchestra of New York. With its long second-act ballet, grand ensembles and wrenching conflict between Church and State, Favorite falls firmly in the grand opéra tradition, but it’s mostly remembered for several notable bel canto chestnuts much loved by singers and best known in their Italian guises as “Vien, Leonora,” “Spirto gentil,” and “O mio Fernando.”

Between its first performance there in 1840 and the end of World War I when it vanished from its repertoire, Favorite was performed nearly 700 times at the Paris Opéra. In the century since, its worldwide fortunes have waned although it has remained an infrequently performed favorite (nearly always in a shoddy Italian version) of mezzo-sopranos from Ebe Stignani and Giulietta Simionato to Fiorenza Cossotto and Shirley Verrett, who have all relished the title role of the doomed mistress of the King of Spain.

The typically convoluted libretto, set in 14th century Spain by Alphone Royer, Gustave Vaëz and Eugène Scribe, mixes historical figures with fictional ones. While married to his second wife Maria of Portugal, King Alphonse XI of Castile did indeed have a mistress named Léonor de Guzman; unlike in the opera, that liaison was a happy one, producing 10(!) children. The real Léonor did have an unhappy ending: after Alphonse’s death Queen Maria had her arrested and later killed.

To create their complex love triangle, the librettists imagined the young novice Fernand, who becomes bewitched by a mysterious woman who has been praying at his monastery’s chapel. To pursue her, he renounces his vows. Léonor, however, is aware that such an involvement would only doom him to dishonor, so she rejects him and arranges for a military commission to get him out of the way. Unaware of her status as the king’s mistress, Fernand wins glory as a great hero and returns hoping to press his case with the mysterious woman.

Though grateful for his exploits, the king soon learns of Fernand and Léonor’s love and plots a humiliating revenge which—thanks to some credibility-straining plot twists—occurs when the benighted lovers marry and in the grandly sweeping third-act finale Fernand learns that he has been duped and then returns a broken man to the monastery. A devastated Léonor arrives there to beg him for forgiveness but their short ecstatic reconciliation is cut short by her inscrutable death.

Although containing its share of Donizetti boilerplate, Favorite has a gratifyingly strong score ranging from a darkly brooding overture to its famous fourth act, which was much admired by Toscanini among others. One of the most agreeable features of Caramoor’s semi-staged operas-in-concert is the palpable sense that everyone involved passionately believes in the project. Not every revival has been equally successful, but one never feels like the participants are just phoning it in.

Crutchfield drew fine playing from the ever-game Orchestra of St. Luke’s and vibrant singing from the young Caramoor Festival Chorus, prepared by Rachelle Jonck. Two Caramoor veterans returned for Favorite including bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs who, as the monastery superior Balthazar, gave one of his most impressive recent performances. While warning the impetuous Fernand of the dangers of worldly love or denouncing his king for adultery armed with a Papal Bull, Mobbs’s monk was a gravely implacable presence firmly in vocal command.

After his splendid Rigoletto at Caramoor last summer, baritone Stephen Powell proved a suave, if wily Alphonse. While his “Léonor, viens” and its propulsive cabaletta were effective, his finest moments came in the trio where he “magnanimously” agrees to the marriage of Fernand to Léonor—there he beautifully spun out Donizetti’s long lines with impressive breath control and gorgeous tone. Powell’s continued absence from New York’s great opera house remains a puzzle but perhaps this fall’s impending baritone crisis might provide an opportunity to correct that lapse.

Much of the pre-concert publicity centered on the New York debut of young French mezzo Clémentine Margaine as Léonor and indeed she revealed a most impressive instrument: an opulently full-bodied sound with a quick vibrato that lent an exciting edge to her secure high notes. But, oddly for someone making her way around the world as Carmen, she had a rather blank stage presence; Léonor’s highly conflicted emotions rarely seemed to register. And not unlike Sophie Koch’s Charlotte in Werther at the Met, the expected advantages of a Francophone singer failed to materialize as she too did very little with the words.

However, she was transformed in that stunning final act. After putting up her hair and changing from a bright yellow gown to a black one with a silvery-sequined top, Margaine connected movingly to the defeated, penitent Léonor. There was an unexpected urgency and a more eloquent, nuanced connection to the text. I’ll be curious to experience her Carmen which the program noted will be arriving at the Met in several seasons.

Perhaps the debut was expected to be the coup of Favorite, but the surprise of the evening was instead another New York debut, that of young Argentinian tenor Santiago Ballerini as Fernand. The diminutive singer started out a bit roughly in the demanding first-act aria “Un ange, une femme inconnue,” but he soon warmed up to display an exciting, tightly focused voice with some striking, pingy high notes that reminded me on occasion of those of a young Juan Diego Flórez.

In contrast to the blasé Margaine, Ballerini, despite some occasionally peculiar French pronunciation, demonstrated both an engaging care for the words and a more rigorous concern for dynamics. The shouting, stomping ovation after his stirring “Ange si pur” (aka “Spirto gentil”) suggested that we should be on the lookout for what this promising young artist does next.

With its sixth Donizetti opera, “Bel Canto at Caramoor” scored a real success which added a rueful note to the recent rumor that a future Met revival of Favorite for Elina Garanca had been canceled. However, Garanca’s Salzburg Léonor (with Florez and Ludovic Tézier) can be heard at Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin’s Mixcloud.

In a much-debated detour from its usual mandate, the next opera scheduled for Caramoor will be Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmélites with an intriguingly eclectic cast headed by Hei-Kyung Hong, Jennifer Larmore and Deborah Polaski.