Sunday, June 8, 2014

Hail to the Queen

Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux
June 5, 2014 - Carnegie Hall
The Opera Orchestra of New York

Lui: It was Mariella Devia’s night at Carnegie Hall, where the Opera Orchestra of New York breathed new life into an otherwise rarely heard gem of Gaetano Donizetti’s oeuvre. Roberto Devereux is the third installment of the composer’s trilogy, known as the “The Three Donizetti Queens” – the first two of which, namely, Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda, have recently been dusted off by the Metropolitan Opera. This recital performance of the great opera set the sixty-six year old bel canto queen, Mariella Devia, as her majesty Elizabeth I, against a supporting cast over whom she towered regally.

Two Queens
Image credit: Michele Balistreri
Lei: This format is part of Opera Orchestra of New York's stated mission of coupling international seasoned artists with promising singers, which is a noble purpose, though the unevenness of experience among the cast was often painfully evident. The disparity between the vocal firepower of Devia and the greener voices of the rest of the singers, however, had the effect of emphasizing the Queen’s character traits even more than what the score calls for, in a triumph of sovereign passion and wrath.  

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex
after Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
oil on canvas, probably 17th century (circa 1596)
Lui: Even as a pure concert presentation, the expressiveness and vivid nature of the score and the tight plot structure with its lively pace loaded with extreme emotions still managed to take us places. Like a tightly wound drum, a clenched fist, it whisked us along through a series of court intrigues, overlapping love triangles, treason and death sentences. Roberto even came across as more of a noble character than expected from the mere plot summary. He and his love interest Sara were actually in love before he went off to war and it was only after he came back that he found out that Sara and the Duke of Nottingham had been betrothed and married while he was away with the blessing of the Queen. His sense of duty and honor is expressed in his desire to die in a duel against his rival to defend Sara’s honor. He has nothing else to live for. Nor does the Queen for that matter. Her love affair with Roberto is really what keeps the aging Elizabeth alive and, when her love is betrayed, she loses all interest in ruling.

The Darnley Portrait of Elizabeth I
Oil on canvas, circa 1575
Lei: Some claim that the role of Queen Elizabeth in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux is the very peak of the soprano assoluta genre, where extraordinary female characters are portrayed through voices of “infinite variety with both heroic weight and flexibility.”* The complexity of Elizabeth’s character stems from the contrast between her demeanor and power as public figure (she can unleash armies and sign death sentences) and her private introspection as a woman in love (she sighs for her younger lover and worries about his fidelity). The opera may begin with the Queen sweetly raving about the joys of love in L’amor suo mi fe beata but her emotional temperature quickly rises as her suspicions about Roberto’s betrayal are confirmed in Un lampo un lampo orribile, in an upward spiral of royal fury culminating with Act II’s terzetto of Elizabeth, Roberto and Nottingham where she pours on her ex-lover a laundry list of insults (Un perfido, un vile, un mentitore (…) alma infida, ingrato core) while she signs his death sentence for high treason (and a most private betrayal). Then again, she changes her mind and very humanly hopes that Roberto will go back to her, if anything to save his own life. As her desperation deepens, Elizabeth does not even care about being loved back but only wants Roberto to live, even by the side of her rival (Vivi, ingrato, a lei d’accanto). When the Queen realizes that it’s too late and her lover got executed, she blames Sara and Nottingham and declares her loss of interest in life and power, calling for her successor James to take the throne (Non regno… non vivo… Escite… Lo voglio… Dell’anglica terra sia Giacomo il re).

Her Majesty La Devia
Photo credit: Tina Fineberg / The New York Times
Lui: Into the shoes of this waning Queen steps the great Mariella Devia, who, by contrast continues to perform at the height of her power as a singer. Wow! The purity of her sound hooks you at about the level of your upper chest, just below your throat and sucks you into the emotions she embodies with such force. She played the sweet spot of the stage at Carnegie like an old pro and filled the space with heft and volume. Hers is a sweet yet chesty soprano. Her agility as she races up and down the bel canto virtuosic scales is remarkable, never muddling a single note, but belting them out with crisp enunciation, clarity and purity. She has a way of really pulling you in. It was magical. One of those rare operatic experiences. A true diva and profoundly talented musician.

Lei: La Devia made me weep copiously at least twice during the evening. The emotional charge of her raging but also humanly desperate arias overwhelmed me when I least expected it. Devia’s impeccable vocal pyrotechnics went beyond virtuosism and really conveyed the deep dramatic tensions of her character, in a sensational display of vocal and dramatic energy. Also, the stellar soprano had a way of embodying the Queen with her whole body, using her posture and hands to interpret the music – yet another element that made her stand out, as the other singers mostly stood rigidly in front of their scores.

The cast and the Maestro
Photo credit: Warner Classics
Lui: Bass Sava Vemic, as Sir Walter Raleigh, had a very minor role, but was alarmingly powerful, especially for someone so young. He has a lot of promise with the punch he packs. In terms of the sheer girth and weight of his deep bass he dwarfed even the seasoned Devia. Truly surprising and very exciting.

The mezzo-soprano, Géraldine Chauvet was a sweet and charming Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham and Roberto Devereux’s primary love interest. Though she lacked the purity and cutting power of the lead veteran, her singing was technically very satisfying and solid throughout. And she had a great stage presence. Her duets with Roberto were moving in a young love kind of way in the context of this fresh young cast, that is, when the orchestra didn’t drown them out. Their rubato moments were especially vivid.

The unrequited love duet
Photo credit: Stephanie Berger / Opera News
After the Queen, the Duke of Nottingham has perhaps the most dynamic role, with his jealous switch from loyal friend to vindictive husband (Sangue volli e sangue ottenni) causing the death of Roberto. Baritone David Pershall as Nottingham had good expressiveness but too often came off as tentative. He seemed like a solid singer though not really ready for roles of this type yet.  I eventually warmed up to tenor, Stephen Costello, whose Roberto Devereux, Earl of Essex, was perhaps weakened at first by his apparent lack of confidence in the way he carried himself on stage. He only seemed to find his stride toward the middle of Act III when it came time for his two big arias and he found himself for the first time holding down the front of the stage on his own. Not only had his voice warmed up by then, but he seemed looser and more comfortable in his skin. Especially poignant was the second of his two big Act III double “prison arias,” Come uno spirto angelico.

Lei: Indeed Costello sadly confirmed my tenor famine theory. He does have good Italian diction and strength in his voice, but he generally lacks warmth and depth. His tone was sweet at times but really never had that melting effect that one expects from an outstanding tenor. Having the chance to sing with someone of the caliber of Devia should be a propeller to excel, but here it just seemed to have emasculating effects. Maybe if he wore a real shirt under his tux (instead of an absurd black t-shirt) he would have felt and looked like he belonged more on the stage.

Lui: Donizetti is so good. It was such a pleasure to be able to savor this under-appreciated opera with such mature orchestration and powerful singing. This composer’s overall breadth and range is hard to fathom. From the same musical mind come lighthearted romantic romps like La fille du regiment and L’Elisir d’amore, as well as big dramatic tragedies like Lucia di Lammermoor and the “Three Queens” trilogy. Musically subtle, distinctively melodic and always beautiful.

Maestro Eve Queler
Photo credit: Eve Queler's website
Lei: A female conductor is too rare a sight. In fact Eve Queler was actually the first “maestro” lady I’ve seen conducting an opera. The eighty-three year old led the Opera Orchestra of New York with impressive forceful grace, really doing justice to Donizetti’s score. Ms. Queler should be saluted not only for her conducting skills but also (and perhaps most importantly) for her 40-year long work as founder as well as heart and soul of OONY, which has brought to the New York City public long-neglected operas such as Wagner’s Rienzi, Verdi’s I Lombardi, Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles and, thankfully, the wonderfully fiery Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux.

– Lei & Lui

Curtain call 
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco

* Geoffrey S. Riggs, The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797-1847, p.7.