07 Oct 2013
Roberto Devereux, WNO
For the final instalment of Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, director
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
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Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
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Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
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For the final instalment of Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, director
Alessandro Talevi and conductor Daniele Rustioni were back at the helm to bring the trio of operas to a thrilling conclusion. We saw the final performance at the Wales Millennium Centre on 6 October 2013, before the company takes the productions on tour. Leonardo Capalbo sang the title role, with Leah-Marian Jones as Sara, Alexandra Deshorties as Elisabetta, David Kempster as Nottingham, Geraint Dodd as Cecil, William Robert Allenby as Raleigh, Stephen Wells as a servant and George Newton-Fitzgeral as a page.
Roberto Devereux was written in 1837 and, unlike Maria Stuarda, achieved great success in Donizetti’s lifetime. Like many of Donizetti’s late opera, the plot involves a love triangle and a woman wrongly suspected, but woven into this is the extremely strong character of Elisabetta. Though Roberto is in love with Sara and act one concludes with their duet, it is Elisabetta who is the prima donna, with an entrance aria at the prime point in act one and with the cavatina and caballetta which concludes the opera.
After brilliant and highly coloured account of the overture (written for the Paris performances of the opera in 1841, and anachronistically quoting God save the Queen), the curtain went up on Madeleine Boyd’s now familiar set, but with a translucent glass wall at the back. During the opening chorus, whilst the women of the chorus toyed with a huge spider in a terrarium, we could see people pressing against the glass outside. The idea of the dangerous spider and of the constant over-sight from others were two constant themes running through Talevi’s production. The sense that Elisabetta was a dangerous creature in confinement, approachable but always capable of erupting, and the sense that every action was done in the public glare.
Whilst I saw Leah-Marian Jones as one of the sisters in Rossini’s La Cenerentola at Covent Garden, I have not been aware of her performing many significant other bel canto roles. Her account of Sara’s opening aria showed that she was able to bring a warm strength and flexibility to the role and engendered immense sympathy for Sara.
Alexandra Deshorties made her first appearance as Elisabetta, clearly channelling Vivienne Westwood. The combination of her heels and red wig made much of Deshorties height, giving her a commanding appearance. She was wearing a red frock with lace collar both of which made clear reference to the dress that Anna Bolena wore at the end of the opera, but over a black horse-hair skirt related the costume of Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda. From the word go, it was clear that Deshorties was commanding physically, dramatically and vocally. She created a highly fascinating and imperious character. Deshorties voice is characterful, though not always highly beautiful, but she used it with skill and had clear facility in the roulades. Her performance might not have been conventionally beautiful, but it was truly mesmerising. Deshorties was Elizabeth incarnate.
Leonardo Capalbo appeared looking every inch the disreputable but sexy Roberto, dressed completely in leather; a look that Capalbo, a relatively slight figure, was able to bring off. Capalbo swaggered and smouldered admirably. He has quite a dark voice, and his repertoire includes quite a number of Verdi roles. For the first two acts of the opera we heard him only in relation to other singers, Donizetti wrote only a single aria for Roberto, in act three. Though Capalbo smouldered and swaggered, he did so within the reasonable bounds of the production and seems to be a performer who knows when not to move. His vocal performance displayed a similar tact, making a fine foil for both Deshorties and Jones in their duets.
The other performer to get an aria in act one, was David Kempster as Nottingham (Sara’s husband), who gave a superb account of Nottingham’s aria proclaiming his fidelity and support of Roberto (a man we know is in love with his wife). Kempster’s bluff commitment and fine flexibility helped bring out the irony of the aria.
Act one ends with an extended scene for Sara and Roberto as they admit their love is doomed, and seal things by exchanging tokens. Jones and Capalbo brought a nice intensity to this scene, and also a sense of melancholy as the doomed lovers admitted this was the end. Talevi’s direction was very sensitive here, knowing when to leave well alone and allow the performers to apparently do nothing. The result was magical.
After the interval, in act two, the storm breaks as Elisabetta discovers that Roberto has another lover, thanks to the scarf that Sara has given him. The opening chorus, was counterpointed with the striking image of Elisabetta (in silhouette through the glass) being dressed and the pacing anxiously. The scene with Deshorties, Kempster and Geraint Dodd’s Cecil was strong but for the concluding ensemble (with chorus) Talevi and Boyd brought off a visual coup. The image of Elisabetta as spider was made manifest, with Deshorties at the centre of a huge mechanical spider with legs moved by her ladies, attacking a prone Capalbo with the other performers scurrying for cover. Donizetti’s furious ensemble here is terrific and Talevi articulated it in physical terms with something akin to brilliance. When I first saw the mechanical spider I confess that I had my doubts, but in the context of the gradual dramatic build-up around Elisabetta’s power and control of her court, it provided a fascinating focus for Donizetti’s ensemble.
For Kempster’s scene with Jones, when Nottingham confronts his wife with the proof of her ‘infidelity’, we were back to ppwerful physical inter-action. Both Kempster and Jones brought a great intensity to the duet, with Kempster’s violence verging on the disturbing, but all the time singing within the confines of Donizetti’s music. A remarkable dramatic achievement.
Roberto’s prison scene finally gave Capalbo his solo aria - a finely melancholy aria with a caballetta of dark intensity and brilliance. His performance was technically adept, but this was not simply a show piece and Capalbo admirably kept his performance within the confines of the dramatic scheme giving a remarkably subtle and sensitively moving performance. Scattered around the edges of Capalbo’s prison were skulls of former prisoners, testimony to the deadly nature of the spider.
The final scene is essentially just an aria and cabaletta for Elisabetta, but written into an extended scene of extraordinary power. Deshorties opened the scene disconsolately hunched on her mechanical spider, now quiescent. Without her red wig and made up to look gaunt, Deshorties was a shadow of the Elisabetta of act one and created a remarkable image of an ageing woman at a loss. With the entrance of Jones’s Sara, too late to save Roberto, we lost the spider and the rear wall disappeared to reveal a row of poles with more heads on them, testament to the spider’s power. Deshorties gave the final cabaletta a performance of striking intensity, this was technically strong but not showy, all was in service to the drama. At the end she made her exit, wearing that red dress, into the void at the back of the stage. A gesture which echoed the end of Anna Bolena but whereas in that opera it was a symbol of power and defiance, here it was a gesture of defeat.
As in Anna Bolena, conductor Daniele Rustioni combined a feel for Donizetti’s rhythms and vocal lines with an intensity of rhythm, without ever making the opera feel driven. What it did feel was powerful and alive. From the intensity of the pairs of repeated notes in the overture, you knew that you were in for a special performance, and we were. The orchestra were on thrilling form and rightly got a strong ovation. I certainly hope to hear Rustioni again in this repertoire soon.
All three operas in this trilogy, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux are about power and its exercise. But this power is combined with a love triangle, particularly with the theme of the guilty wife which seemed to interest Donizetti. Anna Bolena is perhaps the most conventional, with the most straightforward arc of the story. In both Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux Donizetti uses the strength of the character of Elizabeth to experiment with how to balance an opera with two leading ladies.
The strength of this trilogy was the way that Talevi and Boyd’s iconography provided a platform to make the exercise of power understandable and to create a credible dramatic structure in which to explore the very human emotions. By the time we came to the third opera, the linking sense of Boyd’s designs came through admirably and you felt the three as a very satisfying whole. Throughout all three operas, Matthew Haskins’ lighting was striking and evocative, without ever calling too much attention to itself. With such a very dark set, lighting was paramount and the look of the entire trilogy was a testament to three people, Talevi, Boyd and Haskins.
This was a huge undertaking for WNO, requiring the mounting of three bel canto operas in parallel, with six leading ladies and three tenors capable of doing justice to Donizetti’s music. They also found a remarkable set of varied and highly characterful singers, each of whom brought a very particular quality to their performance. When Talevi and conductor Rustioni were in charge, we got a profoundly satisfying musical dramatic whole. Talevi showed himself a highly musical director, producing dramatic work which went with the grain of Donizetti’s music. In this he was aided and abetted by the remarkable performances which Rustioni drew out of the orchestra. Time and again we marvelled at how the strength of the staging brought out the daring and modernity of Donizetti’s music.
Unfortunately, logistics meant that in the middle opera, the production and conducting were deputed to Rudolf Frey and Graeme Jenkins and they do not seem to have been able to inspire the same degree of focussed intensity in their performers. I kept thinking that, if the money could be found, WNO ought to invite Talevi and Rustioni back to re-stage Maria Stuarda.
But whatever individual quibble I have, this was a stupendous three days and, judging by the audience reaction after Roberto Devereux, everyone at the Wales Millennium Centre agreed with me.
Cast and production information:
Sara: Leah-Marian Jones, Elizabetta: Alexandra Deshories, Cecil: Geraint Dodd, Page: George-Newton-Fitzgerald, Raleigh: William Robert Allenby, Roberto Devereux: Leonardo Capalbo, Nottingham: David Kempster, Servant: Stephen Wells. Alessandro Talevi: Director, Madeleine Boyd: Designer, Matthew Haskins: Lighting. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, 6 October 2013.