LA OPERA’S PRODUCTION OF “ROBERTO DEVEREUX”
The tragic opera “Roberto Devereux” by Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti (November 29, 1797 – April 8, 1848) with a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano had its premiere on October 28, 1837 at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, Italy. Although it enjoyed great success in the next 50 years it was not till the late 20th century that it was revived, again at the San Carlo in 1964. Based loosely on the real life of Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, it got its inspiration from François Ancelot’s play “Elisabeth d’Angleterre” (1829) as well on the book “Historie secrete des amours d’Elisabeth et du comte d’Essex” (1787) by Jacques Lescéne des Maisons. It’s one of several operas by Donizetti that uses historical figures of the Tudor period in England which includes “Anna Bolena” (Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn), “Maria Stuarda” (Mary, Queen of Scots) and “Il castello di Kenilworth”. On Saturday February 22, Los Angeles Opera presented the company’s premiere of this rarely performed jewel under unusual circumstances.
Three of the original leads, British lyric mezzo-soprano Alice Coote (Sara) and Spanish soprano Davinia Rodríguez (Queen Elizabeth) had to withdraw from the production due to family matters and illness with the third replacement being maestro Placido Domingo (Duke of Nottingham) who has been under a magnifying glass for his alleged sexual misconduct. With all these roles to be filled, it was the last minute cancellation by Rodríguez that brought a sense of urgency to the production with just 4 days before opening night. Stepping in with little time to rehearse, American soprano Angela Meade, who is a bel canto specialist brought her best game to a very difficult situation as the powerful, yet tormented Elizabeth. Before the performance began, LA Opera CEO Christopher Koelsch explained to the audience that Meade would be singing to the left side of the stage while the production’s choreographer Nicola Bowie did the acting part in costume. You could hear the disappointment in the audience, but as the old saying goes “the show must go on”.
The storyline of the opera revolves around the 3-way love affair between the reigning monarch Elizabeth, Sara, Duchess of Nottingham (mezzo-soprano, Ashley Dixon) and Roberto Devereux (Mexican tenor, Ramón Vargas) who is the love interest between these two female lead characters. To throw another wrench in the love triangle, Sara got married to Roberto’s best friend, The Duke of Nottingham (Hawaiian baritone, Quinn Kelsey) at the behest of the queen while he was away in Ireland acting as its governor. But now he’s back in London accused of high treason for agreeing to a truce with Irish rebels and is awaiting trial. Even though at the beginning it was a bit disconcerting to see the physical Elizabeth going thru the motions while the sound of her character’s voice was being emitted stage left, the extremely talented Meade managed to blur that disconnection in no time.
Showing vocal strength, projection and clarity of voice, her talent was apparent in the first few minutes. As the story progressed she got even stronger, if that is even possible, culminating in the famous and difficult aria “Vivi ingrato, a lei d’accanto” which showed off her command of the coloratura repertoire. As the stoic but indecisive Roberto Devereux, Vargas has the acting abilities and vocal prowess of a true opera star, but it was not until Act 3, Scene 2 (the Tower of London jail) that he was able to really shine in his outstanding rendition of the aria “Come uno spirto angelico… Bagnato il sen di lagrime”. Prior to that scene, he and Dixon wowed the audience with the lovely duet “Dacchè tornasti, ahi misera” as they declared love for one other but accept the fact that they must part due their marital and surrounding circumstances. Taking the role that was meant for maestro Domingo, baritone Quinn Kelsey was a revelation in his complex portrayal of the scorned husband and friend. Possessing a thunderous, lustrous voice that resonated well into the audience, Kelsey brought an aching and then vengeful persona to his character that made his interpretation truly believable.
Rounding out the excellent cast was tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro (Lord Cecil), baritone Michael J. Hawk (Sir Walter Raleigh), Steve Pence (a page) and Abdiel Gonzalez (Nottingham’s servant). Leading the LA Opera Orchestra was the exciting South Korea female conductor Eu Sun Kim, recently appointed music director of The San Francisco Opera, who managed to weave Donizetti’s beautiful score around the singers with perfect sound and intensity. Director Stephen Lawless along with scenery designer Benoit Dugardyn, costume designer Benoit Dugardyn and lighting designerChristopher Akerlind brought to the production and abstract yet effective world set in a Shakespearean Globe Theatre context. The always consistent and outstanding LA Opera Chorus under the direction of maestro Grant Gershon was the glue that tied all the main voices together while taking advantage of the semi-circular, multi-lever theatre background structure, giving their already powerful sound more resonance.
Even with all the setbacks in casting that plagued this production of “Roberto Devereux” there was a long held standing ovation for the entire team, especially for the heroine of the evening soprano Angela Meade. In the subsequent dates she most likely will be ready to take on the complete role performance, that I’m sure will even surpass her magnificent vocal performance of opening night.