St. John’s in the Village 2023 Review: Felix Jarrar & Friends ‘Off with His Head’ – ‘Roberto Devereux’

Much boiled down concert version of Donizetti’s ‘Roberto Devereux’ highlights talent of young artists.

By Chris Ruel

Gaetano Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux,” though not performed with any regularity, showcases the composer’s masterful ability to capture the characters’ raw emotions through stunning music. Salvadore Cammarano crafted the Italian libretto, drawing inspiration from François Ancelot’s tragedy “Elisabeth d’Angleterre” (1829) and Jacques Lescène des Maisons’ “Historie secrete des amours d’Elisabeth et du comte d’Essex” (1787). Devereux also served as the focus of two additional French plays, both titled “Le Comte d’Essex,” one penned by Thomas Corneille and the other by Gauthier de Costes, Lord of La Calprenède.

First staged in 1837, “Devereux” is a tragic opera that unfolds the ill-fated romance between England’s Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, Roberto Devereux. The narrative weaves together themes of political intrigues, betrayal, and envy, culminating in Devereux’s execution and the grief-stricken Queen’s withdrawal from public affairs. Jarrar chose critical numbers from the opera that captured the essence of the story and of the work and presented them in concert format.

In an email to OperaWire, Jarrar wrote of his decision to stage a fraction of the work. “Besides my work as a composer, I am passionate about making bel canto opera accessible to various audiences. I have a particular fondness for Donizetti‘s works, known as the ‘Donizetti Queen Operas.’

“Roberto Devereux” (with a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano) has always been a favorite of mine. When the chance came along for colleagues who I knew would be perfect for the roles, I jumped at the opportunity to put a highlights concert together.”

Thus was born “Off with His Head.”

Though three of the four vocalists were jump-ins, you wouldn’t have known it. The sole originally slated artist was mezzo-soprano Rebecca Sacks, who sang the part of Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham. Soprano Caroline Spaeth stepped in for Natalie Polito as Elisabetta; bass-baritone Javier Ortiz for Andrew Dwan as Nottingham; and Sebastian Armendariz for Gabriel Hernandez in the title role. Jarrar hosted and accompanied.

Jarrar selected the musical highlights, which, strung together, do a fine job of telling the story from start to finish.

From Act one: “All’afflitto è dolce il pianto;” “L’amor suo mi fe’ beata,” “Un tenero core;” “Forse in quel cor sensibile;” “Da che tornasti, ahi misera.”

From Act two: “Non venni mai si mesto,” and “Ecco l’indegno.”

From Act three: “Non sai che un nume vindice;” “Come uno spirto angelico… Bagnato il sen di lagrime;”and “Vivi, ingrato, a lei d’accanto… Quel sangue versato.”

Act One

Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Sacks was the first to take the stage, singing “All’afflitto è dolce il pianto…,” Sara’s entrance aria and one of the more well-known numbers. In this poignant aria, Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham, finds herself engrossed in the tragic tale of Fair Rosamond, King Henry II of England’s lover, and recognizes parallels with her predicament. She harbors feelings for Roberto Devereux, a dear friend of her husband. As she attempts to conceal her emotions from the court, the ladies-in-waiting express their worry. Despite her private sorrow, Sara maintains a façade of happiness.

When hearing a singer for the first time, there’s a moment of anticipation; there are no preconceived notions of what they should sound like, and it’s akin to opening a gift. What’s inside?

For Sacks, the answer is a lot. The mezzo has a prominent voice, mighty enough to fill spaces far larger than the cozy church in Greenwich Village. The tessitura runs high with a smattering of As above C. And there’s a low B to navigate, which she did steadily. Yet more so, she sang with emotion and purpose—you could hear and feel the anguish in her phrasing and approach. Her diction was good, and her fioritura was clean. The venue isn’t outstanding acoustically, so even snappy singing can get muddled. Had her ornamentation been mediocre, it would’ve been a tangle of notes ping-ponging through the church.

“L’amor suo mi fe’ beata,” Elisabetta’s opening aria, sung by soprano Caroline Spaeth, is a picture of the joy and pain of love. The Queen sings about how her love for Roberto Devereux has brought her happiness and suffering.

The aria sat in the upper middle of Spaeth’s range, and she had a wonderfully sweet tone as she climbed to a B flat over C. Her vibrato was light and wasn’t overused. The soprano went with the ossia fioritura, which again brought her to the B flat, which was strong. Spaeth and Jarrar adhered to the fermatas; there was no rush to get to the following note. Spaeth, like Sacks, had clean ornamentation, and the top notes felt like she had space above them without needing to reach.

“Un tenor core.. Nascondi, frena i palpiti” is a duet sung by the title character, Devereux and Elisabetta. The Queen, remembering her love for Devereux, gives him a ring, providing him safe passage.

Spaeth opens the duet with her line in the upper range, hopping to an A above C just before tenor Sebastian Armendariz joins her as Roberto.

Armendariz was marvelous. The music sat in his sweet spot. His tone was lavish, clear, and lively, and the tenor’s first A over C had a fermata, and he held it boldly. However, the first time the score called for unison A over Cs, the blending was just okay. The score is marked fortissimo, and there may have been a bit of overdoing it as their pitches did not fully match. However, subsequent top-note unisons were pitch-perfect.

It was now bass-baritone Javier Ortiz’s time to enter as Nottingham with “Forse in quel cor sensibile. Qui ribelle ognun ti chiama.” In this scene, Devereux grows concerned when the duke speaks of Sara crying over a blue scarf and speculates that she is unhappy in her marriage.

Ortiz shook the church with his cavernous and expansive voice that was generous with emotion. Donizetti sets a D as the top note of the aria, and he had no issues hitting it. His fioritura wasn’t as clear as the others, but, come on, give a bass a break; it’s just cruel. Low and slow has more appeal for this reviewer.

Next came the duet between Devereux and Sara, “Da che tornasti, ahi misera,” which conveys Devereux’s receipt of the blue scarf over which Sara had been crying and fleeing. Tragically, the two promise to never meet again.

Sacks and Jarrar entered the larghetto passage at turtle speed. There was nothing for Sacks to hide behind. Donizetti has the mezzo line all over the place—high, low, and between. With eyes shut, Sacks’ expressiveness was indisputable; you know Sara is devastated.

The duet itself is fantastic. It has some Bel Canto trademarks, but the wallop is in the octave jumps and the frequent As above Cs. There’s a B flat up there for both at the conclusion, which was presented steadily.

Act Two

“Non venni mai sì mesto,” sung by Nottingham (Ortiz), tells of the affair’s discovery and the subsequent death warrant, which he begs the Queen not to sign. Elisabetta does not know that Devereux’s affair is with Sara. But when Elisabetta pulls out the blue scarf, the jig is up. Nottingham now knows his wife has been unfaithful.

This piece tests a bass’s risk tolerance. There’s an E over C reasonably early on. Ortiz got through it but quickly, seemingly not wanting to linger.

Ornamentation and runs—even short ones—really challenged him. Instead of being slightly opaque as before, they had a choppy quality. Ortiz has a fantastic instrument that’s thick and rich, but Bel Canto requires a lighter touch as it maneuvers through wicked passages.

Elisabetta (Spaeth) jumps in to start the duettino section, and the same qualities and attributes noted before remain. With this number, however, she spent much time above the staff yet didn’t sound fatigued, even though she did the bulk of the singing throughout the evening.

The Act two terzetto featured Spaeth, Armendariz, and Ortiz. In this scene, a livid Nottingham calls for a sword to run through Devereux. Nottingham, once Devereux’s friend, is out for his blood.

Spaeth was impressive, with some of the best ornamentation of the evening. There was a run from a B flat over C down to a D where the top note didn’t sound stable, and the ride down could’ve been cleaner. Even though Donizetti put the soprano through her paces, she shone.

Another minor issue was, at times, Spaeth and Ortiz overpowering Armendariz, but overall, the voices remained distinctive, and it was a rousing and dramatic presentation of the terzetto.

Act Three

In the duet between Sara and Nottingham, “Non sai che un nume vindice” sees Roberto being led to his appointment with the executioner.

Ortiz sang excellently, not shying away from the high Fs, and his diction was sharp even as he barnstormed through the passages. It was an impressive number for him, as he proved his below and up-top abilities.

Meanwhile, Sacks hit the A and B flats over C with marvelous strength while remaining in control. The mezzo’s range is extraordinary, makes her a good utility player, as they say in baseball, and allows for a varied repertoire.

As the concert neared its conclusion, Armendariz exhibited strength and technique as the passage kept him in the higher register. “Come uno spirto angelico… Bagnato il sen di lagrime,” the penultimate number, granted him an opportunity to wow the crowd, and he indeed did. The brass in his voice beamed brightly, and he displayed energy with each A.

Spaeth sang the final aria as Elisabetta with “Vivi, ingrato, a lei d’accanto.. Quel sangue versato…” Devereux is dead, and Elisabetta has lost her mind; she envisions the headless ghost of Roberto and her throne transforming into a grave.

This late in the concert, no one could fault Spaeth if she flagged, but she didn’t. There’s a descending, slow run from a B flat over C to a D, delicately handled with fermatas and rests held, establishing a dramatic sense of expectation. Spaeth closed with a potent B over C that was as fresh as any point during the concert.

Jarrar was an excellent collaborative pianist. Though three of his singers had little time to prep, the vocalists and pianist never tripped or got ahead or behind the maestro. Jarrar was super light on the keys when called for—delicate and befitting the story. Yet, he had not a few thunderous moments where he could let loose. Even when playing powerfully, he never overrode the singers. Jarrar has many talents as a composer and a pianist, but his ability to bring out the best in his singing colleagues is right up there with those.

None of what the four vocalists and Jarrar performed was easy. Technical skill, stamina, and expressiveness are required to unearth the personalities within Donizetti’s opera, and while not always perfect, it was an excellent outing for all.


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