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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Buxton Festival 2007 Donizetti, Roberto Devereux:  Opening night 6.7.2007 (RJF)


It was wholly appropriate that the opening night of the 2007 Buxton Festival should open with a Donizetti opera and be conducted by the new Artistic Director, Andrew Greenwood, whose choice it was. Despite Lucia have been the offering for the opening 1979 season, it has been four years since a Donizetti opera has been seen at Buxton when Maria Padilla was staged. Maria Stuarda, another of the composer’s Elizabethan works was featured in 1993. With the benefit of hindsight, many commentators have ascribed to Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux an intensity of musical power and compositional complexity not found in his earlier works.

It is often suggested these qualities owe much to the personal tragedies that afflicted the composer’s life in the period of the work’s composition. These involved the stillbirth of a son, the third consecutive post partum death his wife had suffered, and her own demise a few weeks later. Medically, it is conceivable that the children’s deaths were related to the syphilis that Donizetti carried, and doubtless transmitted to his wife. The tertiary stage of this infection was the cause of Donizetti’s mental deterioration and institutionalisation less than ten years later, and contributed to his early death aged 51. More cynical commentators have said that Roberto Devereux is ‘Lucia’ (1835) without the tunes. While not denying Lucia di Lamermoor’s popularity, the work lacks the musical cohesiveness found in Roberto Devereux which  links
in many ways with the  earlier Anna Bolena (1830) as well as Maria Stuarda. Certainly by the mid 1830s, and in full command of his dramatic gifts, Donizetti had begun to subordinate mere vocal display to the needs of the drama. Cohesiveness rather than intensity is the better description of the qualities of Roberto Devereux the 53rd of his 66 completed operas.

The libretto of Roberto Devereux was by Salvatore Cammarano. who not only provided the librettos for Lucia but for  five other  Donizetti works composed between 1836 and 1838. Though pandering to the 19th century Italian romantic taste for tales of Tudor England - which allowed for period costumes, Kings, Queens, dungeons and great romantic passions - the plot was in fact taken from a French tragedy by Jacques Ancelot, which had also been set by Mercadante.

Cammarano’s libretto is clear in action and characterisation. Roberto Devereux was premiered on
28th October 1837 at the San Carlo Theatre, Naples. It was a resounding success at its premiere and was soon performed all around Italy as well as in Paris (1838), London, Brussels and Amsterdam (all in 1840), and New York (1863). In simple form the plot concerns variations on the normal operatic love triangle. The Queen loves Roberto who in turn loves Sara. The Queen had forced Sara to marry Nottingham whilst Roberto was away fighting in Ireland. On his return Roberto is accused of treachery and threatened with death by Parliament. The Queen assures him that if ever his life is in danger he has only to return a ring she had given him s to ensure his safety. Roberto subsequently gives the ring to Sara in an exchange of tokens, receiving a scarf, complete with love knots in return. Her husband, who believes Sara guilty of infidelity with his erstwhile friend, prevents her  from delivering the letter to the Queen. Meanwhile, in a powerful prison scene, Roberto awaits his release on delivery of the ring. By the time the Queen discovers the reason for the ring’s non-arrival Roberto has been executed.

The first good news about this production by Stephen Medcalf in designs by Francis O’Connor is that it was not set in Bagdad or a concentration camp, but in the period of the plot and in appropriate and quite magnificent period costumes. Furthermore there was no concept baggage.  Medcalf focussed wholly on the crux of the opera, the interaction and relationships of the four leading roles.

Further good news came with the
decision to perform the work in the original language, Italian although some  may view this as controversial and contrary to policy, particularly with provision of surtitles for the first time. I suggest the virtue of the decision lies deeper. The bel canto of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini’s serious operas depend on the marriage of the words and the musical line. Disturb this prosody, or metre of the line by translation into another language, particularly a non-Latin one, and the fundamentals of bel canto  - elegant phrasing and expression as well as support for the voice  - are endangered.

The set was basic, with large panelled walls on the stage sides and back,  with a facility for opening as doors or windows as required. The surface of the panels was semi reflective allowing lighting designer John Bishop to change the mood of the scenes easily. Add four period stools,  a later plinth to hold the pen by which Elisabeth signs the death warrant and a tall cage to represent Roberto’s prison cell and that was the very effective lot. The opera opened with the overture Donizetti wrote for the
Paris production during which a white clad, rather diminutive and wan figure, crossed the stage,  the centre of which was dominated by Elisabeth’s regal costume. The wan figure was  the Queen herself  in the person of Mary Plazas who was then dressed in regal  finery and we saw all the bustles and underskirts necessary being used, an education in itself.

The other principal figures  - Sarah, Roberto and Nottingham - sat facing away from the audience at the rear of the stage on the stools which were used in this way throughout and to a degree cut out slow entrances, thus keeping the dramatic flow. All three -
Susan Bickley's Sara of , Todd Wilander's Roberto  and David Kempster's Nottingham - are of tall stature and contrasted sharply with the diminutive figure of Mary Plazas as Elisabeth. Yet by demeanour, movement and gesture Ms Plazas was their Queen. She sang with even tone, good legato and secure coloratura with a fine trill. If she had any vocal fault at all,  it was the need for more colour which  perhaps her voice lacks. In that respect her singing was more akin to Beverly Sills in  New York City Opera in 1970 rather than Montserrat Caballé or Leyla Gencer who dominated the revivals of the work in the 1960s and early 70s.

As Sara, Susan Bickley was outstanding both as  actress and singer. Her  portrayal was in fact outstanding in every respect:  she inflected and coloured her lyric mezzo to give
her scenes a wide range of expression, most notably in Act 1 - when she beseeches Roberto to flee the country - and in the last act as she pleads with her husband to free her to take the ring to the Queen. David Kempster acted well as Nottingham, his tall figure giving him a great character advantage. His singing was always expressive although a little unsteady in the middle voice. In the eponymous role the American Todd Wilander fielded a light voiced lyric tenor which lacked a little vocal freedom at the top. His range of expression was good however and he acted his part very well. In the penultimate scene with its long aria and cabaletta for Ricardo - shades of the final scene of Lucia - while obviously tiring,  he curdled a note, but like any  good pro,  he recovered quickly  and hit the climactic final one squarely.  Jonathan Best was a sonorous and implacable Raleigh and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks was a firm  Cecil.

Three further matters contributed to a first class evening. I have mentioned the producer’s focus on the inter-relationships at the heart of the work and would simply add that he brought these to the forefront of the performance. The singing of the chorus, all appropriately costumed, but also well choreographed in movement and actions, as when they sew in unison as Sara sits reading was a good example :  of such details are convincing performances made. Finally, Andrew Greenwood has an obvious affinity with this genre particularly in respect of his support for the singers whilst maintaining the dramatic thrust of the music. The playing of the orchestra under his experienced baton was first rate. I hope this affinity will extend to future planning and where Mr Greenwood now has so much influence.

Lucia without tunes? It was also said of Verdi’s Falstaff that it lacked melody. Not true;  it was just that melodies came thick and fast and were gone very quickly. There are plenty of tunes in Roberto Devereux, some of which are similarly fleeting, others of which Donizetti builds into the dramatic duets and confrontations that lie at the heart of this neglected opera. There are further performances at Buxton on 13th, 17th and 21st July. If you love opera as it should be seen and heard, I respectfully suggest you hasten to Buxton and take the opportunity of hearing Donizetti’s excellent dramatic creation well sung, superbly staged and conducted.


Robert J Farr

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