Roberto Devereux at the COC

Roberto Devereux at the COC

Roberto Devereux (1837) by Gaetano Donizetti, libretto Salvadore Cammarano after Francoise Ancelot‘s tragedy Elisabeth d’Angleterre. A Dallas Opera Production, the Canadian Opera Company premiere. Director Stephen Lawless, conductor Corrado Rovaris. More info here.Devereux-COCIt’ll be easy to mock this work — and other operas of this era that share the bel canto ideas of historical accuracy and plotting — so I will try not to and do the harder thing: find something in it that works.

For example, its distillation of the questions around the royal succession and Elizabeth’s resistance to get married down to the story of the queen’s final affair of  the heart. The political issues behind the simplified operatic melodrama are real. The affair itself is largely based on fact (Essex, likely her very last favourite, did lead an unconvincing campaign in Ireland, did attempt a rebellion and was executed for treason). If we compare RD with other two operas in Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy for the care taken to honour at least some of the history, RD comes out rather well. Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda are — a highly technical term I’m introducing here — a pack of lies. In Roberto Devereux, what’s invented for dramatic purposes is the character of the married lady-in-waiting (another Elizabeth’s “favourite”, say the COC program synopsis, and I can go with that) and her affair with Essex. Oh and let’s not forget her husband. So, the soap opera aspect is enhanced; the geo-political backdrop is surprisingly solid.

And although the other two operas of the Trilogy could be read as Catholic propaganda indeed, Devereux reads to me more like a contribution to the long march of cultural iconization of Elizabeth I. Like hundreds of thousands of others, I have a weakness for all things Bess, and this work and this production I found fundamentally pro-Bess. If anybody’s ever seen a production of RD that actually manages to portray EI as a monster, you must let me know about it.

Director Stephen Lawless opens with a fun and busy sequence — sort of an “Intro to Elizabeth I” — in which the cardboard figures of ships and the unrolling of the maps are mixed with three-dimensional action of actors playing people like Shakespeare and Raleigh. It’s a well choreographed sequence that ends with Elizabeth shooting a period pistol with great panache.  From then on, the permanent backdrop to the action is the Globe Theatre-like set. When a crowd is required, the chorus is in the upper levels. Private scenes at the Nottingham household always take place with the marital four-poster bed in the background, to great effect. (The first one is between Essex and Sara; the second between Sara and her husband.) Of all the intimate scenes, these two stand out the most. The most effective Elizabeth scenes, on the other hand, are when she is alone, and in conversation with her own calling, her place in history, and even already the museological and cultural iconicity in the making. (The production may be goofy but is never naive.)

One of the problems with it is, however, that it is a diva vehicle all the way. Sondra Radvanovsky is unnaturally placed centre stage in just  about every scene, even when a different arrangement would make more dramatic sense. Other scenes, with two or three characters in a supposedly dramatic exchange, are bare and slow going.

Radvanovsky was good, of course, but she didn’t thrill me in this kind of material, and maybe it’s the repertoire to blame? I worshiped religiously her Aida from 2010, but here I did not witness the same intensity and beauty of singing and willingness to go the extra mile dramatically. The depth of feeling was just not there. (On the up side, she was not camp, thank goodness (a frequent Elizabeth trap).) The colouring was almost uniform — brash, showy, fairly loud in almost every scene.

Leonardo Capalbo, the tenor lead singing Essex, was a revelation. Beautiful voice, supple, always in control, yet always giving it his all dramatically and emotionally too. I never like tenors best in opera, so this is a first. He had to work against my anti-tenor prejudice, and still came out a winner.

I’d also like to highlight Russell Braun, who makes the most and then some of the role of the betrayed husband, a character with some interesting music and overall well written until the very last Gothic, borderline comic scene.

As far as the traditional productions of historically inaccurate bel canto works remounted as diva vehicles go, this is actually very good. I may even be back to re-live a few favourite moments — there’s no such thing as too much Bess.

Photo by Michael Cooper shows one of the best scenes: QE1 on her (relative) own

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