Dutch National Opera 2020-2021 Review: Donizetti Queens in Concert
An Unbalanced Preview of Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy Featuring Marina Rebeka & J’Nai BridgesBy Mauricio Villa
The Dutch National Opera like many Opera Houses around the world has not been able to perform live since the COVID-19 pandemic began. As a result, it has been offering some streamed performances. On this occasion, the company presented an homage to Donizetti’s Tudor Queens and previewed the three operas which will be programmed during the next three seasons.
In conception, it seemed like a great idea but the result was a mixed bag. The company used the whole theater, placing the orchestra and soloists on the stage with enough social distancing and the chorus was around the auditorium seats facing singers and the orchestra. There were also several lit candles around the auditorium which gave the theater an intimate feel.
But for all these clever performance effects, the concert felt fragmented especially with the operas performed in reserve order. Every piece except the overture to “Roberto Devereux” which began the stream, was incomplete. Considering how rarely performed these pieces are, it would have served the Dutch National Opera better to perform entire scenes with recitatives, repetitions, and complete ensembles to better understand the context of the scene and the works as a whole.
The concert had an international cast of singers led by Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka who performed the three queens, Spanish tenor Ismael Jordi who played the lovers, American mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges who portrayed the rivals, and Italian bass Roberto Tagliavini who sang the cruel Henry VIII.
The cast was rounded out by three singers from the DNO Studio, mezzo-soprano Maya Gour, bass-baritone Frederik Bergman and baritone Maksym Nazarenko.
The stream was announced as a semi-staged production but upon watching it, I could not really understand why Jetske Mijnssen was credited as stage director when there was no staging. The singers just performed their roles in front of the orchestra and were distanced with minimum interaction.
However, I have to applaud the engineers who decided to use ambient microphones rather than individual microphones for the soloist. It allowed home audiences to get sound closer to the one they would hear in the theater and that made the experience all the more rewarding.
As noted the concert began with the overture to “Roberto Devereux” conducted by Enrique Mazzola. It was a straight reading where he took no risks in dynamics and tempi. However, there was an emphasis on staccato phrases which allowed for clear articulation.
That was followed by Rebeka and Jordi singing the Elisabetta-Roberto duet from the first act. It is a duet that allowed both singers to show their pure Bel Canto technique and luxuriate in the long legato lines. Both had clean attacks on notes and opted for lyrical readings rather than a more dramatic approach. That being said Rebeka did accent some moments to emphasize the text and sang a splendid high D at the end.
The subsequent piece performed was a chorus that seemed to be out of place and rather odd given the chorus belongs to Act two. That was then followed by Sarah and Roberto’s duet that concludes the first act. The duet surprisingly began in the middle of the recitative, ”il vero intesi?” rather than the beginning “È desso.” The mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges sang the role of Sarah and possesses a dark timbre with a velvet quality. During this duet, she showed her really beautiful lower and middle register but when she was asked to go above the stave, the sound opened up and became a bit unstable. Some of the high notes sounded forced and heavy and seemed to be uncomfortable for her. It was the first time the mezzo is singing these Donizetti roles so they are likely to become more comfortable in the voice as she sings them in the next three seasons. Jordi, who sang Roberto alongside Bridges, seemed more comfortable using his beautiful timbre and impeccable mezza voce and pianissimi to navigate through the duet. Their timbres did match at many moments and they both ended the duet with a strong high A.
The first piece of “Maria Stuarda” was Elisabetta’s first scene aria. The scene was heavily cut, but Bridges was very comfortable and expressive during the opening aria whose writing is mostly in the middle register. She did seem uncomfortable in the cabaletta, “Ah del ciel discenda un raggio” as the coloratura was a bit smudged and her higher register sounded tense and uneasy.
The following passage from the opera was the confrontation scene between Elisabetta and Maria. Here the whole cast was present and one must applaud the sound engineer who did a splendid job as all the soloists, chorus, and orchestra were perfectly heard. It was perhaps the most dramatic moment of the evening and one that gave us a preview of Bridges and Rebeka’s dramatic abilities and what audiences can expect when the two singing actresses get full productions. However, it was disheartening to see the repetition of the stretta cut. It shortened the drama but it was rewarding to hear Rebeka finish this vigorous piece with a climatic high D.
The final piece from “Maria Stuarda” was from the final scene of the opera. What surprised me once more was that instead of performing the whole final scene, the company opted for only “La preghiera”-The prayer. It is a short and masterful piece but out of context seems strange and unrewarding. Still, it is the most lyrical piece for the soprano in a role that is written mostly in the middle and lower registers. Rebeka therefore could show her crystalline timbre and her immaculate breath control. During the middle of the piece, she held a high G pianissimo for nine long bars before ascending to a high B flat on the same breath. She introduced the minor perfectly in style variations on the repetition.
The concert ended with selections from “Anna Bolena,” the opera the company was to have presented at the end of the 2020-21 season. The section opened with the great duet between Henry the VIII and Jane Seymour from the first act. It is a long duet and as expected they cut the opening recitative, “Oh qual parlar fu il suo” and began with Henry’s phrases, “tutta in voi.” This duet was Roberto Tagliavini’s single moment of the night and he proved to have great control of the Bel Canto style. He showed a gorgeous vocal line with an even timbre throughout his whole register. There was also easiness in his higher register and that allowed him to display Henry as an ardent lover and a tyrannical king. Bridges seemed more comfortable in this duet, especially in her higher register and it proved to be the best part of her performance.
Jordi sang Percy’s aria from Act two “Vivi tu.” It was cut as well in numerous spots including the recitative, the bridge after the aria, and the cabaletta was not repeated. However, this did not stop Jordi from showcasing beautiful top notes and an impeccable vocal line. His ability to sing in mezza voce created a constant chiaroscuro that gave shape and color to the aria. With such gorgeous phrases and impeccable taste, I couldn’t help but wonder why they chose this aria instead of the one from “Roberto Devereux,” which is considered one of the best tenor scenes written for Donizetti and a far more virtuosic piece.
The concert ended with a fragmented final scene from “Anna Bolena.” The scene immediately went to “Ah dolce guidarmi” bypassing the dramatic recitative which shows Anna’s delirium and madness and gives context to this beautiful aria. Rebeka’s sweet timbre matched the melancholic melody that Donizetti wrote and she brought masterful attention to dynamics and the legato line. But with this aria out of context, it sometimes seemed that Rebeka was more concerned with the Bel Canto style than Anna’s delirium. She also never managed to sing pianissimo and instead stayed in mezzavoce.
After the aria, Rebeka sang the final cabaletta “Coppia Iniqua.” She sang it beautifully with subtle variations on the repetition and masterful coloratura and high notes. It was impeccable singing for a piece that might just be the most difficult cabaletta written by the composer from Bergamo. The soprano ended the evening with a thrilling high E flat that once again showed her technical security and dominance of the style. It may have sometimes been an icy reading and the setup didn’t help the singers get completely into each scene.
Overall this was an amazing concept to showcase selections from the Tudor Queens trilogy, but the results were uneven as most of the scenes were severely cut. It seemed that if it was a way to introduce the operas to new audiences, a chronological order would have been better served. Yet it was still a good viewing experience as it was brilliantly filmed with a well-balanced sound. In conclusion, this was a nice preview of what is to come in the next three years and what should give these singers plenty of time to deepen their interpretations.