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Jennifer Rowley as Maria di Rohan [Photo by Gabe Palacio]
01 Aug 2010

Maria di Rohan at Caramoor

Maria di Rohan was Donizetti’s penultimate opera, composed in Italian for Vienna in 1843, with revisions to appeal to the taste of Paris and Milan following.

Gaetano Donizetti: Maria di Rohan

Maria di Rohan: Jennifer Rowley; Chalais: Luciano Botelho; Chevreuse: Scott Bearden; Armando di Gondi: Vanessa Cariddi. Orchestra of St. Luke’s, conducted by Will Crutchfield. At the Caramoor Festival, Katonah, NY. July 24

Above: Jennifer Rowley as Maria di Rohan [Photo by Gabe Palacio]

 

Donizetti completed one more French grand opera, Dom Sébastien, before syphilitic madness ended one of the busiest of all composing careers at the age of 48. Maria was a success but not an enduring hit—the opera suffers from plot confusion, too many offstage events and far too many incriminating letters and devious proclamations (I lost count). Composed as a soprano vehicle, it was long kept alive by Titta Ruffo, who enjoyed the emotional range of the baritone’s part. Maria has plenty of Donizetti’s gracious melodies and the more forceful integration of musical number and dramatic form that make his later works so fascinating, so clearly foreshadowing his young friend Verdi, who learned a great deal from them, but its elaborate intrigues do not draw us in.

In history, Marie de Rohan was the notorious Duchesse de Chevreuse, an indefatigable troublemaker at the court of Louis XIII. In the opera, however, she is an anguished heroine, torn between love and duty and … more love. It’s not her fault that every man in the cast, including the one played by a woman, is crazy about her and that she can only be married to one of them at a time. (She could, of course, be the lover of more than one, and in real life, she was—but stage morals had to be stricter than life: “Una la volta, per carità!”) “You will live in infamy,” snarls her vengeful husband (that baritone), having just disposed of her lover (the tenor), as the final curtain falls. And so she did. Her reputation lingered like the scandals of bygone movie stars: everyone remembered that woman, but—what exactly did she do?

In an earlier day, Donizetti would have ended the piece with a strident cabaletta for the prima donna protesting her unjust fate (as he had ended Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia and Roberto Devereux), and he did indeed write such a piece—but a new, tighter dramatic spirit was in the air, and he cut the number out. (It exists, though, and was performed at Caramoor in a concert of omitted music from other editions of the score before the main event. This is the sort of addendum that makes a Will Crutchfield concert opera such a delight for the bel canto enthusiast.) The opera now ends with that baritone snarl and an orchestral crash, leaving us (perhaps) stunned by Maria’s wordless anguish—the way Verdi and Puccini, afterwards, would stun audiences at the final curtain with a single cry. This is abrupt and thrilling—but I’d have liked to hear that cabaletta. Donizetti perceived that music-drama was changing, but Maria di Rohan is not Traviata or Tosca—its stately sort of drama seems to demand that full final statement.

Not that the prima donna’s role seemed abbreviated—she must lie to her lover, lie to her husband, plead (offstage) to saturnine Cardinal Richelieu for the lives of both, agonize over her reputation and her bad decisions, sing duets and suffer remorse, all in flowing despair or glittering excitement. Maria is a hefty soprano workout, and the only other woman in the cast is the trouser role of Gondi, who makes scandalous insinuations about Maria after she rejects him—and Gondi is soon disposed of. Basically, Maria, her husband Chevreuse, and her confused truelove, Chalais, are the only characters—aside from the cardinal, the king, the queen and Chalais’s dying mother, who remain offstage. The chorus part is brief. This is a chamber drama with grand opera forces.

One of the draws of the Caramoor performance was an exciting young soprano from the Crutchfield stable, but she withdrew due to illness three days before the performance. Maestro Crutchfield—like anyone else in the one-performance concert opera business—keeps a clutch of possible replacements on hand anticipating just this sort of fiasco, and his Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists again proved its usefulness when Jennifer Rowley took on the arduous title role at short notice.

Rowley has a beautiful voice of considerable size, many attractive colors and remarkable evenness over a couple of octaves up to a spectacular D-flat. Her vibrato seems more suited to Germanic than bel canto roles (she sang Konstanze in Newark), but it disappears when long Caballé-style legatos are called for. Her trill is imprecise but not unpleasing, her ornaments stylish, and she was off-book three days after learning she would be going on. She earned a standing ovation and got it.

Luciano Botelho, a Brazilian tenor, sang her lover, Chalais. His voice is sweet and attractive if a little light for the demands of so intense a part—he is more a Nemorino or Ramiro (in Cenerentola) than a Chalais. He seemed at times to be gasping between lines of his opening aria, but his command of line gave great pleasure, and in his passionate final scenes he showed more strength.

Scott Bearden sang the Duc de Chevreuse, the sort of baritone who risks his life to save his tenor best friend—only to discover the fellow is his wife’s lover. He acted this well, remembering to limp when he’d been wounded in an offstage duel, and sang it in a curious way—for his opening aria went rather higher than baritones usually go (higher by some steps than the Ricordi score of the opera, published twenty years after the premier, demands), and though he managed this tessitura admirably, the quality of these notes had neither tenor excitement nor baritone heft. Was this an alternate version of the autograph? (Crutchfield had undoubtedly examined all discoverable versions of the score—he and Philip Gossett discussed their choices at a lecture in the afternoon.) If so, what sort of voice does Bearden have for the rest of the repertory—a low tenor or a high baritone? In later scenes, his voice seemed to possess more juice at the normal baritone range, and when he finally lost his noble temper—another of those letters!—he growled with far more comfort.

Vanessa Cariddi took the trouser role of Maria’s accuser, Gondi, with the right travesty swagger and a pleasing style. The smaller male roles were all handled rewardingly.

Crutchfield’s conducting of these bel canto operas is always subservient to the ease of the singers, sometimes to the detriment of theatricality. With a prima donna understudy, no doubt he was right to do this, but the dramatic arc of the piece as presented lacked excitement. It was pleasant to encounter this tuneful rarity, but nothing about the evening of fine singing proclaimed the opera an overlooked masterpiece.

John Yohalem

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