To correct the relative dearth of serious bel canto here “Trove Thursday” offers the 92nd of Donizetti’s 137* operas, Gemma di Vergy, from Bergamo the composer’s birthplace with the lovely, largely now forgotten Adriana Maliponte in the title role. 

Gae and I go way back: when I was Opera Pre-Teen one of my favorite tv shows was The Wild Wild West (gee, I wonder why?). I was intrigued by the episode where Patrice Munsel guest starred as a temperamental (of course!) Italian diva who sang about a minute of the Lucia di Lammermoor Mad Scene.

Maybe that’s why the next year Lucia became the first opera I attended—I was 12 and went by myself clad in my sports jacket and clip-on tie on a $2 student ticket. Apparently I was not impressed as neither the opera nor its prima donna (Roberta Peters) became favorites.

More recently I’ve OD’d on Donizetti. I was amazed to tally up that over the past decade or so I’d attended five Lucia’s, three performances of Anna Bolena and Elisir; two each of Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux and just one of Parisina, Lucrezia Borgia, Don Pasquale. Fille du Régiment, Linda di Chamounix and La Favorite!

But clearly his works touch and thrill legions and are favorites of popular monstres sacrés. If anyone is familiar at all with Gemma it is surely thanks to Montserrat Caballé who included a chunk of it on her “Donizetti Rarities” LP, the final volume of her superb three “rarity” collections on RCA. She eventually sang the entire opera on stage at the San Carlo in Naples followed by performances around Europe and in a concert with Opera Orchestra of New York that was issued on CBS LPs. I could find no evidence that it has ever been reissued on CD, although several other of her live performances have.

Gemma premiered in 1834, a year after Lucrezia and a year before Lucia and has a particularly knotty and unusual plot—the barren heroine is about to be displaced by a new young wife but a slave in love with Gemma kills the husband before the replacement can take over! Vergy must have been a hopping place as Donizetti wrote another opera with a heroine from there—Gabriella di Vergy.

Some have called Gemma Donizetti’s most challenging soprano role which might explain its infrequent revivals. The most recent seems to have been in 2011 once again in Bergamo where a young Maria Agresta made news for her impressive portrayal.

Today’s Gemma, Maliponte debuted at the Met as Mimi in 1971 and attracted notice there as Luisa Miller later the same year. Her real “star” moment however came when she replaced Teresa Stratas as Micaela in the headline-making opening night Carmen of the 72-73 season. But the Italian soprano (still with us at age 78) had already occasionally sung in the US during the 60s including Lëila in Les Pêcheurs de Perles in Philadelphia with Ferruccio Tagliavini and Gabriel Bacquier and Violetta at Chicago Lyric.

For a while it looked like Maliponte might turn out to be one of the Met’s most valuable singers. For the four years after her debut she showed impressive versatility performing Pamina, Euridice (I have a very fine pirate of Orfeo with her, Marilyn Horne and Judith Blegen), Marguerite, Juliette, Amelia Grimaldi, Liù, and Norina. But then nothing for nearly a decade other than a pair of Luisas with Luciano Pavarotti after Katia Ricciarelli departed the run.

Replacing Kiri Te Kanawa as Violetta and then Ricciarelli in Manon Lescaut brought her back to the Met in 1984, but after some performances as Alice Ford in Falstaff the next year (including Giuseppe Taddei’s acclaimed debut in the title role) she vanished from the Met forever, although many locals fondly recall her as Iris with the New Jersey State Opera in 1988, the year after this Gemma performance.

Other than the Bernstein Carmen, the only other opera that Maliponte recorded is Puccini’s Le Villi with Barry Morell. It too has never been issued on CD. While one might not at first think of Maliponte as a bel canto singer, she did do Poliuto as well as Elvira in I Puritani and Antonida in Glinka’s Zhizn’za tsarya.. And fear not ottocento fans, another, better-known bel canto opera has been scheduled for “Trove Thursday” next month.

Donizetti: Gemma di Vergy

Bergamo, Teatro Donizetti
7 October 1987.

Gemma: Adriana Maliponte
Ida: Nucci Condò
Tamas: Ottavio Garaventa
Conte di Vergy: Luigi De Corato
Guido: Agostino Ferrin
Rolando: Franco Ruta

Orchestra & Chorus of RAI-Milan
Conductor: Gert Meditz

Gemma can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player above and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

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* OK. It just seems there are that many Donizetti operas; he actually wrote only about half that number. But if syphilis hadn’t killed him at 50 there surely would have been lots more.