Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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RD in HD: ROBERTO DEVEREUX at the POPCORN MET

April 18, 2016

Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux was the 64th of his 84 operas (the total number depending on how you count the revisions and alternate versions).  First premiered in Naples in 1837, it was heard far and wide in the nineteenth century, only to fall on hard times (like most bel canto) after 1870.  In the twentieth century it was revived in 1966, again in Naples, for Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer, and it received a major boost in the U.S. when Beverly Sills took it up for New York City Opera in 1970 with a very young Placido Domingo singing the role of Roberto.  Sills championed the work along with two other operas Donizetti wrote on Tudor history--Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda.  These operas were for awhile known as the composer’s “Tudor Trilogy,” although he did not compose them at the same time or to be heard as part of a group.  Tudor history was very popular in the early nineteenth century and a common subject for fiction and drama.  Donizetti even composed a fourth opera on Elizabeth I, Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, although that one is rarely performed today.

Make no mistake, Roberto Devereux is one of the composer’s best tragic melodramas and contains some splendid and highly dramatic music, especially in Act II: the duet between Sara and her husband, the Duke of Nottingham; the tenor’s prison aria “Come un spirito angelico”--‘Like an angelic spirit’ and its catchy (if a bit too bouncy) cabaletta “Bagnato il sen di lagrime”--’My breast is bathed in tears’; and Elizabeth’s final scene with its great recitative, aria (“Vivi, ingrato”--‘Live, ingrate’) and final slow cabaletta (“Quel sangue versato”--‘That spilled blood’).  In my view, Roberto Devereux is the best of these “Tudor” operas musically, and it has a clear, taut libretto by Salvadore Cammarano too.  There were so many “Elizabeth and Essex” dramas and operas, that it is hard to pin down Cammarano’s immediate source, but it was probably another libretto, by Felice Romani written for an opera by Mercadante called Il Conte d’Essex.)

The story is based on real historical characters, and the execution of Devereux at the Queen’s orders is historically true, but the star-crossed love tale which lies at the heart of the opera’s plot is fanciful.  Queen Elizabeth I has sent Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex (tenor), off to fight for her in Ireland.  While he is there, tales arrive suggesting that he is trying to assemble an army to challenge her as queen, so he is brought back and accused of treason by his enemies at court.  He had been in love with Sara (mezzo-soprano), but while he was gone Elizabeth has forced her into a marriage with the Duke of Nottingham (baritone).  Unfortunately, Elizabeth herself loves the handsome Robert.  When she finds out that ‘her’ Robert is in love with someone else, her jealousy causes her to side with his enemies and she sentences him to death.  Sara is about to save him by taking a ring to the Queen which she had given him for valor which will ensure his safety, but she is prevented by her husband, the Duke, who is enraged to discover that his wife and Devereux seem to have been having an affair.  When Sara does finally bring Elizabeth the ring, it is too late.  A cannon shot announces that the execution has taken place.  In her final, harrowing aria, she sees his ghost stalking the palace and declares that she will yield the throne to James of Scotland.

robertodevereux2

The Metropolitan has mounted this production (the first in the Met’s history) for Sondra Radvanovsky, who has also performed the other Donizetti “Tudor” operas this season, replicating the feat of Beverly Sills 45 years ago.  Based on the reactions in the packed opera house, Ms. Radvanovsky scored a stunning success, but she remains the most controversial of current major opera singers.   James Jorden wrote in the Observer that David McVicar’s “hackneyed interpretation of the Elizabeth character leaned too heavily on the historical fact that the Queen was in her late 60s during her affair with Essex.  So…Radvanovsky was made up to look like Jessica Tandy as the Crypt-Keeper and directed to twitch and dodder in the time-worn Bette Davis manner.”   Jorden did not find Radvanovsky much better vocally.  “[She]…sounded as geriatric as she looked, crooning the whole first act flat, and later parading a gallery of vocal mannerisms cribbed from legendary interpreters of the role….”

On the other hand, Martin Bernheimer, a critic for whom I have a lot of respect, writing for the Financial Times, was uncharacteristically fulgent in his praise: “On every level -- visual, vocal and histrionic -- Radvanovsky rose to the occasion. She unleashed shattering fortes when power was required, floated exquisite pianissimos when it was not. She continually demonstrated the dying art of the long, controlled diminuendo and illustrated the ornate text in a flashing array of colours. She stalked the scene, moreover, with dignity masking frailty….”

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Even a recent issue of Opera News, which had a cover story on Ms. Radvanovsky which was mostly a puff piece, admitted that her voice is not to everyone’s taste.  I would not be as brutal as Mr. Jorden (“the sheer ugliness of her singing…”), but I have to say I am in that minority which does not like her voice.  For me, it has an annoying metallic edge which gets worse when she forces.  She also has a very big voice which can be unpleasantly grating in person.  Some of these traits are ameliorated in the HD presentation where microphones (and sound technicians) can soften volume and smooth rough edges.  As to bel canto technique, it is on-again, off-again.  Sometimes it works, sometimes her voice just won’t do what she wants it to do.  Still, listening to her singing next to her colleague Elìna Garanča’s limpid voice and clean technique did not work in Ms. Radvanovsky’s favor.

robertodevereux3I also found her characterization to be too mannered, with the palsied tottering over the top.  I assume that this was mostly due to McVicar’s direction.  Her removal of her Elizabethan wig in the last scene to reveal thinning grey hair and her shaking throughout was reminiscent of McVicar’s direction of Joyce DiDonato as Mary Stuart in Maria Stuarda, which I saw (on stage and in HD) a couple of years ago.  In the first act, Elizabeth’s  white make up and red lips reminded me of the Joker in the Batman movies, not a monarch so vaunted that she bequeathed her name to an age.  Her huge cartwheel ruff and enormous court gown were equally exaggerated.  I think that the idea (and a good one) was to move her from being the QUEEN, hiding behind the elaborate facade of a court costume to the simple old woman, sans wig, sans gown, sans ruff at the end.  If the idea was to make her sympathetic, however, it did not work for me.  Her steady diet of anger, bitchiness and mannered movement kept me from ever sympathizing with her, which Donizetti clearly wanted given the heartbreaking music in her final arias.  I think it was a mistake (McVicar’s) to make her a physically weak old lady, even though historically she may have suffered from several ailments when these events took place around 1601.  I don’t think that Donizetti and Cammarano were much concerned with historical veracity.  They called their work a “lyric tragedy,” not a docu-opera.  Like most operas of the period, an impossible love relationship is at the center of the plot.  There is nothing romantic about the angry, palsied old woman who is insanely jealous of her much younger and more beautiful rival.

That said, the Met surrounded Radvanovsky with wonderful singers.  Matthew Polenzani was an especially mellifluous  Devereux; his delivery of his prison aria “Come un spirito angelico” was breathtakingly beautiful; surely this is one of Donizetti’s most melting tenor arias.  Garanča was just superb as Sara, and what a beautiful woman: Elizabeth didn’t have a chance!   Her bel canto technique was wonderful too, and bel canto has not been her normal metier.  Perhaps the vocal highlight of the performance was her duet with Mariusz Kwiecien as her husband, the Duke of Nottingham, in the first scene of Act II.  The two of them sang for all they were worth, and acted brilliantly, and I must say that McVicar’s direction was perfect.  Some have written that Kwiecien was hard to hear and “unfocused” in the house, but it was not apparent in the movie theater, at least to me.

The best I could say of Maurizio Benini’s conducting is that is was routine.  Many moments of drama and point in the orchestra went by without notice.  There is a lot more to conducting bel canto that beating time.  

I very much liked David McVicar’s set design.  He fashioned the unit set after a Jacobean theater, with an “audience” standing on the sides and looking down from boxes, dressed in Jacobean costume.  They applauded the entrances and exits of the characters as if watching a play.  Since Elizabeth’s last line in the opera concerns yielding the throne of England to “Giacomo”—James VI of Scotland who became James I on Elizabeth’s death in 1603—it makes sense to set the opera as if it were a drama being watched by an audience some years after Elizabeth’s death.  In fact, a tomb with her carved effigy is in the background in the final scene.  She reaches out to it dramatically (and not without a soupçon of the cornball) before collapsing in the end.  Costumes by Moritz Junge were generally very handsome, except maybe for Elizabeth’s exaggerated outfit (and makeup) in Act I.  

All in all, I found the production to be very enjoyable in spite of my reservations about Radvanovsky as a singer.  Whatever you may think of her (and most find her wonderful) the other singers were all splendid.  And the opera itself is one of Donizetti’s best.  What took the Met so long in getting around to staging it?

Charles Jernigan
Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network

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