God Save the Queen: Roberto Devereux at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Donizetti – Roberto Devereux

Elisabetta I – Edita Gruberová
Duca di Nottingham – Simone Piazzola
Sara, duchessa di Nottingham – Silvia Tro Santafé
Roberto Devereux, conte di Essex – Charles Castronovo
Lord Cecil – Francesco Petrozzi
Sir Gualtiero Raleigh – Kristof Klorek
Un servo – Sean Michael Plumb

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Friedrich Haider
Stage director – Christof Loy

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, Germany.  Sunday, April 16th, 2017.

The Bayerische Staatsoper does not usually make photographs available of repertoire evenings such as this.  Apologies for the lack of photos with this review. 

At what point does a living legend say goodbye to her public?  I thought of this tonight as Edita Gruberová took her curtain calls to a loyal public crying out her name in this, her seventy-first year and fiftieth year on the stage.  I must admit that I didn’t stay to the end of the curtain calls but they were still going twenty minutes after they had begun.  She is adored by her fans, with a group of gentlemen even carrying a banner with her face on it.  They clearly love her and didn’t want her to leave.

Christof Loy’s production was a serviceable rendition that was clearly easily revivable.  He set the work in a conspiratorial atmosphere where the chorus and extras existed in the background, with notes being passed around and where nothing was private – even the walls were made from glass.  Elisabetta was a pill-popping grande dame in a power suit bearing a not dissimilar physical resemblance to Margaret Thatcher.  This was a society where brutality was not very far from the surface – the way Sara was treated, bound and gagged by Nottingham in the Act 3 duet, was absolutely shocking.  Likewise, we saw Devereux being mistreated by the guards in quite a graphic way.  As an illustration of the plot it certainly did the job although perhaps the visual insight offered by Talevi’s Madrid production for example was missing.  Nevertheless, the personenregie was most certainly vivid.  We had clear flesh and blood characters who really related to each other and whose motivations were always most believeable.  It definitely did the job.

It would be wrong to say that the passage of time isn’t apparent in Gruberová’s singing.  Most of her acuti were honourable near misses and the lower register is arid.  And yet, I felt exceptionally privileged to be watching her.  Despite those fifty long years on stage the voice is remarkably intact.  The tone has never been the most refulgent, but the middle and much of the top has maintained that steely pearliness that is her trademark.  Of course now, ascents through the registers need a helping hand with some discreet and not so discreet scoops up, but the core of an impeccable bel canto technique is very much there and I was fascinated to hear it.  Indeed, it felt like I was getting a singing lesson, because the security of technique is what allows her to maintain singing such a demanding work after such a demanding career.  There is also a lifetime of understanding in her musicality with some impeccable ornamentation in her opening number.  In a way, it felt like watching a long gone age in her stately acting and artful falling to the floor, but also in an age where building that kind of rock solid technique can at times seem to take a back seat to celebrity, the sheer dedication that has gone in to maintaining her instrument really is quite inspring.

That said, I must admit even Gruberová was for me outshone by Charles Castronovo’s Devereux and Siliva Tro Santafé’s Sara who between them offered us singing of equally impeccable technique and that was also truly bel canto.  Devereux was a role debut for Castronovo and it’s a role that’s an ideal match for his warm, masculine, Italianate tone.  His big Act 3 set piece was sung with that implicit musicianship that cannot be taught – and that few have.  He savoured the text and shaded the line with such genuine musicality.  The legato was nicely even and he found some heroic strength for the cabaletta.  As always with Castronovo, one felt completely secure in his vocalism knowing that the voice would do everything he asked of it – and it most definitely did.  His duet with Tro’s Sara was exquisitely sung and certainly, for me, one of the high points of the evening.  Tro’s Sara is a known quantity from that same Talevi production from Madrid.  Her voice is full of juicy, orange-toned sappiness with a good line and a genuine trill.  Her opening aria was beguilingly sung with real tenderness.  In her Act 3 duet with Nottingham, she became impassioned, singing with unflinching freedom and her acting as her husband bound and gagged her was absolutely harrowing.

As her husband, Simone Piazzola was also making a role debut.  Piazzola certainly illustrated the man who had lost everything most convincingly, looking lost and uncertain as reality dawned on him.  His vocal production is interesting.  In his Act 1 aria, the voice had good resonance but sounded awkwardly placed.  In the cabaletta, the tone felt somewhat dry – it felt the support wasn’t quite lined up there.  Of course, this could all be down to first night nerves and indeed, Piazzola is still very young – he’s still in his early thirties.  His native use of text did of course give pleasure and the way he mapped the journey of his character was vividly brought to life.  Certainly a very interesting singer whose development I will be following with interest.

In the remainder of the cast, I was impressed by Sean Michael Plumb who, in just a few lines, demonstrated a very handsome baritone – one I would very much like to hear again.  The chorus was absolutely fine and was likewise moved efficiently around the stage.  The orchestra played very well for Friedrich Haider who launched the evening with a terrifically lively account of the overture.  Tempi were ideally paced – generally nicely swift but he also held back where necessary to allow the singers to work their magic.  He seemed to be at one with his colleagues on stage and kept the evening fizzing along just as it needed to.  It felt exactly right.

Certainly tonight we were in the presence of a legend.  And while the passage of time might have been audible there was still much to treasure in that technique and in the insight that she brought to the role.  We also got to see two of the finest singers around today and a highly promising young baritone who all offered singing that gave a great deal of pleasure.  Combined with vigorous conducting and solid work from the house forces, this was a highly memorable evening in the theatre.

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The Nationaltheater in Munich, home of the Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl



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