Teatro La Fenice 2019-20 Review: Roberto Devereux
Roberta Mantegna & Enea Scala Lead in a Beautifully Sung PerformanceBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Michele Crosera)
Another step back on the road to a post virus normality was taken at Teatro La Fenice with its performance of Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux.” Seats were returned to the stalls, the orchestra was back in the pit and the singers back on stage. Yes, there were still some restrictions in place, so that face masks were still necessary and every other seat remained empty. More importantly, however, was that the performers still had to abide by social distancing rules, which meant that a fully-staged performance with an active chorus was still not feasible. La Fenice’s solution was to present the opera in a semi-staged form.
A Dramatic Staging
The set was of a fixed design which has been in place since the theater reopened following lockdown, consisting of a skeletal wooden ship’s hull with the stage inclining upwards towards the back, on which the static chorus was placed. The director Alfonso Antoniozzi, nevertheless appeared unfazed by the many restrictions and produced a satisfying presentation, one which was not only dramatically sharp, but also visually pleasing; many fully staged performances have failed to engage the audience with the same degree of immediacy, dramatic intensity or even visual interest.
All the singers and chorus were dressed as per a concert performance, although tweaked to highlight their characters and changing circumstances, so that Roberto Devereux was dressed slightly more flamboyantly than the other male soloists, with a grey waistcoat and open-necked shirt, while during the prison scene, he was barefooted without a jacket or waistcoat. The defining color was black, only Elisabetta and Sarah’s costumes had any color, Sarah wore a deep blue dress, whilst Elisabetta’s was pale green, with a design which hinted at the Tudor period, and decorated by a diamond necklace.
Props were kept to a minimum, such as the blue scarf which entraps Devereux, a chair or two, and Elisabetta’s tall throne with a crimson back which dominated the stage. Otherwise, it was left to the singers to create the drama through their acting and singing. Yet, it was only the four main characters, Elisabetta, Devereux, Nottingham, and Sarah who displayed any significant degree of movement, and even then they had to observe social distancing rules. The minor characters and chorus remained largely static. Its overall effect, however, was to highlight the vast social, power, and hierarchical distances that existed between Elisabetta and Devereux, distances which owing to Elisabetta’s position as Queen she was unable to cross, leaving her isolated, with the conflict between her private and public life irresolvable.
However, what really brought depth and an atmospheric tension to the production was the lighting, designed by Fabio Barettin, which carefully picked out the characters against the brooding, dark background, and successfully drew the audience’s attention to the characters’ intimate and conflicted relationships. Moreover, it created a number of visually stunning scenes. The prison scene, in which Devereux awaits his fate in the Tower of London, was no more than a dark stage with a bright light which caught the shadows of the prison bars, allowing the empty stage to magnify his isolation.
An Accomplished Cast
Donizetti’s librettist Salvatore Cammarano produced a well-crafted text with scenes of dramatic depth and high emotion, and in the character of Queen Elisabetta, Donizetti produced one of his most successful portraits, in what is a psychologically and nuanced representation. In fact, it has been described as one of the great acting and singing opportunities in the bel canto repertory, which in this production fell to the young and highly considered soprano Roberta Mantegna. She produced a confident performance in which the beauty of her voice took center stage. Possessing a bright, well-supported voice with the ability to craft appealing phrases, founded upon an agile and secure vocal technique she captured the spell of Donizetti’s alluring melodies. Her Act three aria, “Vivi, ingrato, a lei d’accanto” showed off her ability to spin out long lines with a smooth legato, whilst the Act two stretta “Va, la morte sul capo ti prende” displayed a more forceful and powerful aspect of her singing in which her voice sailed out above the chorus, orchestra, and soloists. However, Mantegna’s interpretation is a work-in-progress and she did not succeed in fully developing the nuance and depth of what is a complex character. Although she convincingly brought out the queen’s isolation and regal demeanor, the more conflicted aspects of her character were not sufficiently highlighted in the voice. She could have further exploited the vocal colors in her lower register, stretch the voice more in the higher register, and accented the vocal line with greater array of emphases. Of course, none of this detracted from the pure beauty of her singing.
The other parts by comparison are not as carefully crafted and tend towards a type, rather than a fully fleshed-out character. As a result, they demand less in the way of nuanced characterization from the singers. Devereux, for example, is a passionate and courageous daring-do knight. He was played by Enea Scala, who sounds and looks every inch the virile tenor. It is not until scene five of the opening act that Devereux makes his first appearance, and when he did Scala made a suitably strong entrance, acting and singing with a confident swagger which never left him throughout the evening. He possesses an appealing timbre of substance, sang with strength and passion, and produced a clearly defined expressive portrait of Elisabetta’s favorite. He sings a number of high-energy duets and ensemble pieces in which he clashes with Elisabetta, with Sarah, and with Nottingham, each time with a passionate intensity in which the sparks flew. In the final act, Devereux sits in his prison cell and gives voice to his thoughts in the reflective aria, “A te dirò negli ultimi,” with its dashing cabaletta, “Bagnato il sen di lagrime,” his agile voice climbing and descending with ease, the top notes beautifully wrought, in which the melody was allowed to shine.
Sarah, Nottingham’s wife and Elisabetta’s favorite lady-in-waiting was played by mezzo-soprano Lilly Jørstad. Her initial romanza, “All’afflitto è dolce il pianto,” was a little undercooked, passing by with little impact, however, she quickly grew into the role, in which her strong presence and distinctive voice, with its piercing top notes, caught the attention. Ultimately, it was a strong reading, combining elegance and expressivity. Her high point was the Act three confrontation with her husband which was a fierce and gripping exchange, underpinned by beauty, power, and passion.
The fourth principal singer was the baritone Alessandro Luongo in the role of the Duke of Nottingham, Devereux’s friend, turned deadly enemy. In what was a refined reading Luongo sang with intelligence, in which his elegant and nuanced phrasing, underpinned by sensitive coloring and dynamic emphases, successfully captured his noble manner. Low key for most of Acts one and two, without being insipidly so, he sprang into life in his double confrontation, first with Devereux and then with Sarah, the stark contrast to his earlier disposition highlighting his mental anguish.
The minor characters all performed well. The tenor Enrico Iviglia played Lord Cecil as cold and calculating, while Luca Dall’Amico showed off his pleasing bass as Sir Gualtiero Raleigh.
The Coro del Teatro La Fenice put in its usual strong performance under the direction of Claudio Marino Moretti, with a performance which was expressive and engaging.
Musical direction was in the hands of the accomplished Donizetti maestro Riccardo Frizza, who produced an intense and passionate reading from the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice in which he highlighted the dynamic and textural contrasts, although on occasions one or two instruments were allowed to sit a little too proudly, compromising the overall balance. The forward momentum was well-paced and dramatically satisfying, and he remained attentive to the singer’s needs throughout.
Notwithstanding the fact that half the seats in the stalls had to remain empty and that one member of the chorus insisted on singing through a mask, this felt like a return to normality. Although billed as a semi-scenic performance, it was so well staged that it was dramatically more complete than many fully staged presentations, and moreover, was blessed with a fine cast in which the bel canto aesthetic was brought very much to the fore.