Subscriber OnlyStageReview

Zoraida di Granata review: This early Donizetti, performed in its original form for the first time, is quite an engaging ride

Wexford Festival Opera 2023: An impressively unwavering Claudia Boyle sings the title role, with Matteo Mezzaro as Abenamet and Konu Kim as Almuzir

Zoraida di Granata

Wexford Festival Opera

Gaetano Donizetti, who was born in Bergamo in 1797 and died there of cerebrospinal syphilis in 1848, is the most performed composer in the history of Wexford Festival Opera. He was prolific, leaving more than 70 operas to his name.

At his peak he dominated the world of Italian opera. His Zoraida di Granata, which opens this year’s festival on Tuesday night, was a major early triumph. It was first heard in 1822 and became the first of his operas to be performed outside of Italy.

The work had to be partially rewritten by its 24-year old composer before its premiere because of the death of one of the tenors, who burst a blood vessel in a performance of Pacini’s Cesare in Egitto. His role, Abenamet, was reconceived for contralto, and a new cast for an 1824 revival caused even more substantial changes.

Wexford is offering what is believed to be the first performance of the original 1822 version of the work, with a tenor singing the Abenamet role.


The story, originally set in 15th-century Spain during the siege of Granada, has been relocated by director Bruno Ravella and designer Gary McCann to the 1990s siege of Sarajevo, with specific reference to the razing of the city’s national library.

A cast dressed in 20th-century suits and army fatigues, and a set of a bombed and burnt-out building, certainly has immediate resonances that no evocation of 15th-century Granada would be likely to match.

The plot is fairly typical operatic-love-triangle fare, with two tenors struggling over a soprano who is already committed to one of them. The resolution in this 3½-hour work is so abrupt and trite, almost like a deus ex machina, that it makes the first-night audience laugh.

The music has similar uncertainties, as if Donizetti did not yet know exactly how to set a mood, and was happy to leave in blatantly contradictory expectations that even the highly sensitive conducting of Diego Ceretta doesn’t manage to make persuasive.

This is only one of the areas that make Zoraida di Granata very much a young man’s opera. It’s clearly conceived to make a striking impression, in vocal challenges (which sometimes sound unreasonably demanding for the effect they deliver), in the whipped-up colour of the orchestral writing, and in his failure to match the time he spends exploring certain ideas with those ideas’ intrinsic interest. The work could probably be trimmed by a quarter or even a third and no one would miss what had been taken out.

The brunt of the self-consciously virtuosic vocal writing falls on the soprano Claudia Boyle, in the title role. She is impressively unwavering if not always unscathed in the face of her workouts of velocity and agility as her character negotiates the conflict between her lover, the Moorish general Abenamet, and the malign and deceitful Almuzir, who has become king of Granada by murdering her father.

Konu Kim’s brutish Almuzir and Matteo Mezzaro’s sympathetic Abenamet are as contrasted in voice as in character. Kim shows laser-like projection and engaging heroic tone; Mezzaro uses his thinner-sounding but pliable voice to seek expressive openings that are otherwise in rather short supply.

Think of Zoraida di Granata as you would the work of a young film director who flings his rich talent in all sorts of directions and you’ll understand why, despite its length, and its overstatement, this opera is actually quite an engaging ride.

Zoraida di Granata runs at Wexford Festival Opera on Friday, October 27th, Tuesday, October 31st, and Friday, November 3rd; the festival continues until Sunday, November 5th

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor