07 Oct 2013
Roberto Devereux, WNO
For the final instalment of Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, director
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
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.