Tuesday, September 18, 2018

An astonishing queen and a formidable rival burn the stage in a spectacular Roberto Devereux at San Francisco Opera

Via history, literature and art, Elizabeth I ranks as one of the most recognisable monarchs to reign over England and its dominions. In opera, she makes several appearances, most notably in Donizetti’s bel canto spectacular, Roberto Devereux, non-evident in the title but one of a trilogy of operas now referred to as “The Three Donizetti Queens” or “The Tudor Trilogy” that includes Anna Bolena and Maria StuardaLittle light filters through the plot that concerns Elizabeth’s obsession with the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, but in its musical language the exhilarating force of the bel canto style soars radiantly high. And it does so with monumental beauty in San Francisco Opera’s current season at the War Memorial Opera House.

Scene from San Francisco Opera's Roberto Devereux
Roberto Devereux is a multifaceted tragedy of personal desire, suspicion, betrayal and vengeance. English director Stephen Lawless’ angle brings a refreshing theatrical surprise and novelty to the stage without trivialising the gravitas that underlies the work. Making use of the melodic overture, which includes a tributary snippet of “God Save the Queen”, Lawless energises the work without delay as part of BenoĆ®t Dugardyn’s handsome set design - a sturdily built timber form mimicking London’s original Globe Theatre. This make-believe world of a stage within a stage concept serves well as a reminder that facts and truths easily evaporate in the service of artistic and dramatic license, as is the case here in Donizetti and his librettist Cammarano’s work. 

An elderly Elizabeth enters and a whirling unfurling of memories begin around her. Vitrines appear, containing herself as a child between her bickering parents Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Shakespeare pops out of a basket, a ballet sequence slots in delightfully and cut-outs of miniaturised battle ships cross the stage while surtitles give a little history lesson above. Lawless cleverly gives the immediate sense that we are firmly planted in Elizabeth’s domain and it’s from her perspective that we’ll be looking.

Sondra Radvanovsky (centre) as Elizabeth I
Even before making an impressive launch into her opening cavatina, star soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who sang the role in this Canadian Opera Company production in 2014, revealed just how engrossing and committed she is as an actor. While exuding imperiousness in her royal duties, it was in the personal distraction of Elizabeth’s obsession with Devereux, the physical fragility, fidgeting and the deeply engraved facial expressions that Radvanovsky brought unforgettable stature to her role. Most poignant, even heartbreaking, was the uncertainty and conflict Elizabeth encountered not as ruler, but as a woman. After having signed the execution order for the man she regrettably sent to his death, Elizabeth’s ‘performance’ was over. In a dressing-room-like setting, the regal attire hangs over the dresser and Elizabeth appears in her undergarments - wig-less, disoriented and unfulfilled as a woman. Then, before all, Radvanovsky delivered an astonishing showcase of vocal heights in the finale aria, “Vivi, ingrate.”

In this, the third of a six performance run, Radvanovsky glistened with supreme beauty in the top range while showing off her flexibility and striking steeliness. There were early issues getting the lower range to meat-up but Radvanovsky’s command of the immediate drama remained unwavering. With exciting trills and ornamentations, Radvanovsky sensibly exuded elegance rather than flamboyance, uncannily able to convey meaning as if rendered in naturally spoken text - a first rate performance!

Jamie Barton as Sara, Duchess of Nottingham
As the married Sara, Duchess of Nottingham and Elizabeth’s rival for Devereux’s affection, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was on fire all night and was every bit as splendid in voice as her queen. Every part of the voice burned formidably and every emotion released with it seemed both heartfelt and real. Getting carried away as you do, Barton’s vocal qualities resembled a sensational dessert of stewed richness blended with soft, velvety textures and warm caramel. You simply wanted more.

Against these two powerhouse performances, both of which were large in theatrical gesture, the men by no means lacked presence - for a start, Ingeborg Bernerth’s highly detailed period costumes provided distinguished authority. And the men’s more subdued acting style certainly assisted in drawing more attention to the psychological trajectory of the women. American tenor Russell Thomas’ did the job smartly and robustly in the title role, the smoothness, resonance and clarity of his voice imparting genuineness and intent. Of significance, Thomas played his part with great sensitivity and understanding in his various duets with Radvanovsky and Barton. But the best of Thomas’ performance came in his final aria, “Come uno spirto angelico...” when, behind the bars of his cell, he sang achingly of Devereux’ refusal to betray Sara. 

Russell Thomas as Roberto Devereux
Romanian-American baritone and Adler Fellow Andrew Manea, who replaced Artur Rucinski, gave a strong-looking performance as the Duke of Nottingham though the depth of vocal colours was limited. The promise in the voice came in the shocking closing first scene of Act 3. In Sara's apartments, Nottingham pushes her to the bed in what no doubt will result in her rape and a great rush of adrenaline charged the voice in Manea’s finest moment. In the smaller roles of Lord Cecil and Walter Raleigh, Adler Fellow colleagues Amitai Pati and Christian Pursell were greatly satisfying and coercive, the men’s chorus less so with their often smudgy singing. 

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra were in superb form and conductor Riccardo Frizza led a marvellously measured interpretation that elevated the passions, the tension and occasions of pomposity throughout while giving the singers ample space to amplify.

It’s taken almost 40 years for Roberto Devereux to return to the San Francisco Opera. For this masterful production just three performances remain. If you have any slight interest in opera, get yourself a ticket because I’d hate to think you’d have to wait another 40 years to see it on stage again.

Roberto Devereux 
San Francisco Opera 
War Memorial Opera House
Until 27th September, 2018

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

No comments:

Post a Comment