Donizetti – Roberto Devereux
Elisabetta I – Mariella Devia
Duca di Nottingham – Marco Caria
Sara, duchessa di Nottingham – Silvia Tro Santafé
Roberto Devereux, conte di Essex – Gregory Kunde
Lord Cecil – Juan Antonio Sanabria
Sir Gualtiero Raleigh – Andrea Mastroni
Coro Titular del Teatro Real de Madrid, Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real de Madrid / Bruno Campanella.
Stage director – Alessandro Talevi
Teatro Real, Madrid. Friday, September 25th, 2015.
The Teatro Real is to be congratulated for mounting a highly innovative 2015 – 2016 season, featuring both well-known and lesser-known repertoire, highly judicious casting and a stimulating roster of stage directors. This production of Roberto Devereux was the season opener. It’s a re-staging of a production that has already been seen on tour with Welsh National Opera and with it, Alessandro Talevi has given us a visually striking and dramatically cogent framework for the story that allows the singers to drive the action forwards. This production, of which tonight was the second performance with this cast, was due to be Mariusz Kwiecień’s prise de rôle as Nottingham but regrettably he was obligated to withdraw from the run. It’s surely a role that would fit him like a glove and I very much hope that we will get the opportunity to hear him in it soon.
The sets (Madeleine Boyd) were utilitarian ultimately due to their having to be used on tour. Nevertheless, Talevi gave us a show of striking visual impact, transcending the necessary sparseness of the sets with some highly effective stage pictures and lighting effects (Matthew Haskins). The stage was dominated by the colour black and the constant presence of the chorus as guards or minsters pointed to the claustrophobic society in which the action took place. This was a society that, on the surface, treated its queen with the utmost reverence and in turn the outward signs of Elisabetta’s rule were manifested in the almost mechanical behaviour of the court not to mention the murderous silencing of dissent. Indeed, in one major coup de théâtre the sound of the cannon coincides with the lighting illuminating the severed heads of those who went before. In effect, Elisabetta’s rule was a totalitarian one, her influence maintained through arachnid threats. In the first act we saw a large spider in a glass case and in the second we see Elisabetta pursuing Roberto on an enormous mechanized one. At the end as Elisabetta ceded the throne, the reaction of those around her was one of bewilderment as if completely unable to rationalize how they could deal with her departure.
I very much appreciated Talevi’s willingness to allow the singers to guide the drama and use the highly effective visual effects sparingly. It firmly focused the show as a human story, and despite the ancient royal setting, this was a show about real characters and real emotions. The downside, if there was indeed one, was that from time to time the singers would revert to stock operatic gestures as if semaphoring their emotions to the very back of the auditorium rather than attempting to bring the audience in. It is a highly effective piece of theatre and in its understatement has a considerable cumulative effect. Talevi is clearly a director to watch.
Unfortunately, the good work that Talevi and his singer-actors put in was dissipated somewhat by Bruno Campanella’s leisurely jaunt through the score. It started so well, the overture performed with a good blend of elegance and vigour. He secured some strong playing from the Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, some sour violin tone at the very top of the range and the occasional horn fluffs notwithstanding. It did however feel that he was privileging the beauty of the line over dramatic impetus and I regret to say that the sheer dramatic energy produced on the stage was not matched by a similar momentum from the pit. The duet between Sara and Roberto in Act 1 typified this approach of spinning beautiful lines yet not quite maintaining dramatic momentum, the tempo felt too slack although the singers were able to support and spin beautiful lines. The chorus was very good, offering singing of elegance and charm in their opening chorus in Act 2.
I had to keep reminding myself throughout the evening that Mariella Devia is 67 years old. I’m convinced that there are sopranos half her age who would kill for her fabulous musicianship, pearly top and sheer stylistic panache. Perhaps unsurprisingly it took her a little while to warm up – the bottom of the voice curdled slightly in her opening aria but by the time she reached the cabaletta, the voice soared with highly musical and virtuosic decorations. She also nailed the highly challenging descents through the registers in her Act 2 trio with Roberto and Nottingham. Devia has never had the world’s biggest chest register but she used what she has fearlessly throughout the evening. Above all, I left the theatre tonight with a sense of gratitude for a great artist giving selflessly of her outstanding technique and of her still fine instrument to her audience. A remarkable achievement.
In a way, it feels wrong to describe Gregory Kunde as a veteran but now in his early 60s, with a highly impressive career behind him, it’s clear that he has reached a glorious Indian summer. The voice has tremendous resonance and carries easily throughout the theatre. It would be wrong of me not to say that one was aware that there were technical adjustments that needed to be made to produce the sound but what struck me was the sheer generosity of his singing. Moreover, his act 3 scena encapsulated precisely everything that is admirable in his singing – security of tone, generous legato, fearless attack at the top allied with a stunning and extremely musical use of ornamentation. One certainly felt in the presence of a great musician.
Marco Caria’s Nottingham revealed a notable talent. As with Kunde, the voice has fine resonance and a richness and consistency of tone throughout all the range, including a very impressive top. He shaded his music with genuine care and attention. His artistry is still somewhat rough – intonation was variable and I would say that he doesn’t quite yet have the ability to completely transform the notes on the page into elegant and meaningful phrases. There is a big voice there for sure and I can see a bright future for him. In the smaller roles, I was impressed by Juan Antonio Sanabria’s distinctive tenor and Andrea Mastroni was luxurious casting as Raleigh.
Silvia Tro Santafé’s Sara was the highlight of the cast for me. The Valencian mezzo has that unteachable ability to manipulate the bel canto lines with great meaningful and emotional impact. Her soprano-ish mezzo has great sheen from the bright and nicely-sized top to the rich and generous bottom. She gave us some beautiful portamenti throughout the evening and delivered her music with a fabulous legato. Her Act 1 entrance aria was lovingly phrased and her duet with Caria’s Nottingham in Act 3 was sensational in the way she combined her fearless vocalism and physicality yet never compromised the beauty or integrity of the sound. Tro really is an outstanding artist.
Ultimately, this was a bit of a mixed evening. We were given an intelligent production, combined with some deeply impressive singing and acting yet both were let down by conducting that favoured beauty of line over dramatic momentum. Despite this, I left the theatre in awe of the stupendous achievements of great artists who gave so generously and so fearlessly of themselves. Tonight we were at the summit of bel canto and the view was certainly very impressive.