Los Angeles Opera 2019-20 Review: Roberto Devereux
Angela Meade Delivers a Riveting Performance in Stephen Lawless’ Intelligent ProductionBy Gordon Williams
(Credit: Karen Almond/ Dallas Opera)
“…[A] dramatist of considerable dramatic sophistication, capable of great irony in his musical treatment,” so says Stephen Lawless of Gaetano Donizetti. The comment appears in a director’s note in the program booklet for Los Angeles Opera’s production of Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” which opened Feb. 22 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
A Stunning Production & Leader
Lawless’s opinion augured well for a production which turned out to be truly, truly superb – entertaining and intelligent, but also underlining the intelligence that already exists in librettist Salvadore Cammarano’s text and Donizetti’s marvelously agile, tellingly-colored, and excitingly-paced score. Donizetti and Cammarano’s “Roberto Devereux” displays that wonderful intersection of personal and public that nourishes really great political drama. Academic circles may accuse Donizetti of superficiality but here there’s a particularity in the surface that denotes great depth, or at least that’s what Lawless’s production revealed.
“Surprise me!” is a command often heard from theater directors in rehearsal. But the surprise element – call it “freshness” – was very real in this production, noticeable even in the very first bars of the music conducted by Eun Sun Kim, future Music Director at San Francisco Opera, making her LA Opera debut. A tutti exclamation, pause, string chorale, pause…this is how the work begins. A mere assemblage of ideas? No, under Kim’s baton, there was palpable tension underneath. These were juxtaposed propositions that promised the unfurling of an intriguing drama. Musically, the evening’s every detail was well-judged – the tempo shifts of Elisabetta’s “Ah! ritorna qual ti spero;” the pressing bass iterations under Elisabetta’s refusal to consider Nottingham’s plea for pity on Roberto’s behalf. Kim’s handling of the orchestra pointed the text as acutely as a Shakespearean actor might shape Elizabethan verse.
The story can be summed up simply. Elisabetta (Queen Elizabeth I played by Angela Meade, stepping in at short notice to replace an indisposed Davinia Rodriguez) and Sara, Duchess of Nottingham (Ashley Dixon, making her LA Opera debut) are in love with the same man, Roberto Devereux the Earl of Essex (Ramón Vargas). Military commander in Ireland, Devereux is brought back to London to face charges of treason. Nottingham (Quinn Kelsey, also in his LA Opera debut) pleads for his dear friend’s life until he discovers that it is his own wife Sara who is Elisabetta’s rival for Devereux’s love. Thenceforth, he pushes for Devereux’s execution preventing his wife Sara from producing the ring that would persuade Elisabetta to be merciful.
The intersection between public and personal is symbolized beautifully in the late Benoît Dugardyn’s set replicating The Globe Playhouse. We, the audience, look out into the audience from The Globe’s stage; the Queen’s private life is played out before this public. In fact, her private life is political. The Globe Theatre setting highlights the Shakespearian politics of the plot.
Certain directorial decisions enriched the production, such as pantomimes of background information (for example, illustrating the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn which produced Elisabetta), and characters walking on silently in other scenes, Lawless’s own mise-en-scene adding extra narrative dimensions.
A half-curtain before and between scenes doubled also as a screen on which background information could be projected. “Spurred on by Nottingham’s confession about Sara, Robert journeys to Nottingham’s residence.” These intertitles added expectation and excitement, but were also almost a Brechtian device ensuring that the audience would be intellectually engaged and no mere passive recipients of bourgeois entertainment. But it didn’t take a lot of ‘extra’ to give this work the substance the genre is often claimed to lack.
Overall there was an extraordinarily good use of the stage, particularly of Lord Cecil (Anthony Ciaramitaro) and Sir Walter Raleigh (Michael J. Hawk). They often appeared on opposite sides as if plotting from left and right and catching Devereux in a vice. The dais that passed for the Globe’s stage was also utilized effectively, Nottingham expressing the grief he feels at his wife’s suspected infidelity by having to take a seat on it every so often and then, in his great duet with Sara, they edge closer to each other around the dais’s circumference amplifying the increased intimacy of the music.
There was brilliant choreography from Nicola Bowie – for example, a wonderful dance move created out of the needle-working ladies-in-waiting’s stitching gesture. And every time, the LA Opera Chorus appeared in the balconies there was a real sense of populating the world. Musically, the stage design brilliantly made sure that choral sound came to us from the entire vertical space encompassed by Shakespeare’s “wooden O.” The stage was managed so well that a question arose in my mind as to whether Donizetti’s score was itself written with the blocking in mind just as Shakespearean verse apparently was.
A Musical Spectacle
Of course, Donizetti’s work is a bel canto opera with a heavy focus on beautiful singing and one of the first things to note about the production’s vocal work was its pleasing accuracy.
But the bel canto ornaments, responsible for music history dismissals of bel canto as merely decorative, were so fused with meaning in this production that one forgot Wagnerian-tinged criticism. This story of intrigue really told.
Soprano Angela Meade offered a riveting performance as the Queen displaying the widest range of emotions from tenderness to extreme irritation and anger. That was best highlighted in her finale scene showing extreme contrasts between the aria “Vivi, ingrato, a lei accanto” and “Quel sangue versato.” Meade goes on to reprise the role at the Metropolitan Opera in September. Her stage presence matched vocal delivery as when, for example, crabby and annoyed, she would slap away a lady-in-waiting’s hand. Mezzo Ashley Dixon’s coloratura was equally accomplished and meaningful, her voice for example shading away into a ghostly reflection of its normal fullness when singing of her grievous pining for Devereux in “All’ afflitto è dolce il pianto”.
Quinn Kelsey was a formidable presence as Nottingham even from his first entrance to the penetrating volume of his cries of “Scellerato” when he discovers that it is his friend Devereux who has been liaising with his wife. Ramón Vargas delivered “Come un spirto angelico” with brave directness from his cell, the condemned man only just stifling one effective sob.
“What a magnificent piece Roberto Devereux is”, said British critic Rupert Christiansen in 2013. This revelatory production could also be described in Australian parlance as “a ripper”.