GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Roberto Devereux—Ştefan Pop (Roberto Devereux, conte di Essex), Mariella Devia (Elisabetta I, regina d’Inghiterra), Sonia Ganassi (Sara, duchessa di Nottingham), Mansoo Kim (Il duca di Nottingham), Alessandro Fantoni (Lord Cecil), Claudio Ottino (Sir Gualtiero Raleigh), Matteo Armanino (Un paggio), Loris Purpura (Un familiare di Nottingham); Coro ed Orchestra del Teatro Carlo Felice; Francesco Lanzillotta, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance at Teatro Carlo Felice, Genova, Italy, on 20 and 24 March 2016; Dynamic CDS7755.02; 2 CDs, 130:51; Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]
One of the most-discussed operatic events in America in recent years was Opera Orchestra of New York’s 2014 concert performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. OONY’s relationship with the third of the operas that comprise the so-called ‘Tudor Trilogy,’ a designation not conceived by Donizetti [his seldom-performed Elisabetta al castelo di Kenilworth expands the trilogy to a tetralogy—L’annello dei Tudori?], began with a 1991 performance featuring Martile Rowland, Fernando de la Mora, and Stella Zambalis, enriching the long drought between the score’s first outings in New York, the still-revered 1965 American Opera Society concert performance with Montserrat Caballé as Elisabetta and the New York City Opera production mounted for Beverly Sills, and NYCO’s revival with Lauren Flanigan and the opera’s Metropolitan Opera première in 2016 with Sondra Radvanovsky. More so than the opera’s relative rarity in the international repertory, a neglect that has recently abated to some extent, what made OONY’s 2014 performance a genuine event was the participation of Italian soprano Mariella Devia. Despite having been heard at The Metropolitan Opera as Konstanze and Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Così fan tutte, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Gilda and Nannetta in Verdi’s Rigoletto and Falstaff in a career with the company sporadically spanning fifteen years, Devia has been an exasperatingly infrequent visitor to North America, a scarcity mirrored by the soprano’s unaccountably sparse commercial discography. Now, bel canto lovers are simultaneously treated to two recordings of Roberto Devereux featuring Devia, a filmed souvenir of an acclaimed Madrid production with Gregory Kunde in the title rôle and the present aural and visual mementos of two March 2016 performances in Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice. Dynamic’s engineers clearly appreciated the significance of this project, producing one of the label’s finest releases. Neither stage noises nor audience disruptions come between the listener and the thrilling performance of Roberto Devereux that plays out on these discs. Its strong cast notwithstanding, this release is undeniably an instance of unabashed diva worship. In this opera in which the Earl of Essex claims the title but it is Elisabetta who ultimately sears her name into the listener’s psyche, is that not as it should be?
Under the baton of conductor Francesco Lanzillotta, the Teatro Carlo Felice choral and orchestral forces acquit themselves professionally and idiomatically. The opera’s programmatic Sinfonia, popularized in concert repertory by its quoting of ‘God Save the Queen,’ is buoyantly played by the orchestra and confidently paced by the conductor. With its extended melodic lines and quicksilver rhythms, Roberto Devereux is an opera that—in good performances, at least—sounds easier than it is for all of the musicians in the pit. Even so, very few of the inevitable mistakes that give live performances their unique frisson intrude in this recording. The balance between stage and pit achieved by Lanzillotta is commendable, and Dynamic’s flattering acoustics permit appreciation of the cleverness of Donizetti’s orchestrations. After laudable work in Act One, the choral singing in ‘L’ore trascorrono’ at the start of Act Two is disappointingly ragged in both tone and ensemble, though the hushed final chord is managed well. Granting the principals relative interpretive license, Lanzillotta maintains tighter control of the performance than many conductors who approach bel canto repertory with greater rigidity. Roberto Devereux is a momentous destination along the route from the quintessential bel canto of Bellini to the dramatic Romanticism of Verdi, but Lanzillotta is careful to avoid letting lyricism or bombast dominate this performance. The dominant force in this recording is Donizetti. Here, too, is this not as it should be?
Represented by the appealing singing of Matteo Armanino as the page and Loris Purpura as Nottingham's servant, care was taken in the casting of supporting rôles. Relative to their historical importance in the political milieux of Elizabethan England, Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Cecil were marginalized by Donizetti and his librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, serving their sovereign in Roberto Devereux more as scene setters than as ambitious courtiers. Claudio Ottino voices Gualtiero’s lines robustly, and Alessandro Fantoni makes the most of every note that Donizetti allotted to Cecil. Bad singing in any of these rôles is not an insurmountable disaster, but far more enjoyable is the Roberto Devereux that, like this one, needs to make no apologies for the performances of its secondary players.
The Duca di Nottingham of South Korean baritone Mansoo Kim is an unsubtle but not unfeeling man in possession of a voice of good quality. Occasionally recalling the bel canto singing of Renato Bruson, Kim’s performance fuses unimpeachable musicality with well-honed dramatic instincts. In Act One, Kim gives ably-sung, dramatically urgent accounts of ‘Forse in quel cor sensible’ and ‘Qui ribelle ognum ti chiama,’ his upper register focused and projected impressively. As the Duca pleads in Act Two for the queen to spare Roberto’s life, Kim duets with Devia’s Elisabetta excitingly, his lines in ‘Non venni mai si mesto’ delivered with conviction, and the baritone sings commandingly in the trio with Elisabetta and Roberto, ‘Ecco l'indegno.’ Reading the fateful letter that his wife receives from Roberto in Act Three, Kim partners Ganassi’s Sara powerfully in ‘Non sai che un nume vindice.’ The knots that bound the characters’ allegiances loosed by the revelation that Sara, compelled by the queen’s prerogative to marry Nottingham, is the unnamed rival for Roberto’s love, Nottingham exacts vengeance with cataclysmic results. Kim’s final utterances are as crushing as the blows of the axe that claim Roberto’s head. Kim’s vocalism is sometimes short on bel canto elegance, but he brings the conflict-hardened duke to life with style and bravado.
Italian mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi has devoted much of her career to service to the bel canto muse, and her portrayal of Sara, the reluctant Duchess of Nottingham, in this performance of Roberto Devereux provides ample evidence of why, even after she has expanded her repertoire to include heavier rôles, she continues to be in demand for bel canto performances. Making her entrance in Act One recounting the tale of fair Rosamund, mistress of Henry II and the eponymous heroine of Donizetti’s 1834 opera Rosmonda d’Inghilterra, Ganassi sounds marginally unsteady, her top notes effortful and off-pitch. She settles the voice for a flawed but refined traversal of the melodious romanza ‘All’afflitto è dolce il pianto.’ Sara brings the curtain down on Act One with the pulse-quickening duet with Roberto, ‘Dacchè tornasti, ahi misera.’ Here, Ganassi takes charge like the consummate mistress of bel canto that she is, producing centered, impactful tones and hurling out notes above the stave with complete control and spot-on intonation. The Act Three duet with Nottingham, ‘Non sai che un nume vindice,’ inspires the mezzo-soprano to her finest singing of the performance. Her every note in the opera’s final act draws its impetus from the text, and her Sara is ultimately as much a tragic heroine as Elisabetta. In this setting, Ganassi is a seconda donna upon whose music a prima donna voice is lavished.
Singing the title rôle with bright, secure tone, Romanian tenor Ştefan Pop furnishes this recording with what many performances of Roberto Devereux lack: a Roberto worthy of his top billing. The gravity of the earl’s predicament in Act One never weighs down Pop’s vocalism, but he meaningfully conveys the inner anguish that afflicts Roberto. Denying his illicit love for the now-married Sara when confronted by the queen, whose advisors press her to grant the royal assent to Roberto’s death warrant, Pop voices ‘Nascondi, frena i palpiti’ vividly, endeavoring to maintain a proper bel canto line even when plumbing the depths of the character’s emotions. Benefiting from his partnership with the experienced Ganassi, he fearlessly scales the vocal and expressive heights of the duet with Sara, ‘Dacchè tornasti, ahi misera,’ ending Act One with a pyrotechnical display of electrically-charged singing and unison top notes. In the Act Two trio with Elisabetta and Nottingham, ‘Ecco l’indegno,’ Pop fires cannonades of heated responses to Devia’s and Kim’s impassioned discourse. Imprisoned and awaiting execution, Roberto’s beautifully-written scene in Act Three is tastefully handled by the young tenor. His breath control in the aria ‘Come uno spirto angelico’ is admirable, and the integration of his upper and lower registers also earns praise. Pop manages the difficult cabaletta ‘Bagnato il sen di lagrime’ better than any other Roberto on disc: concentrating on phrasing rather than individual notes, he reveals the integrity of music that can seem banal. Among Donizetti’s rôles for tenor, Roberto is one of the most difficult to cast. With Pop, this production got it right.
It is apparent from the first familiar strains of ‘God Save the Queen’ in the Sinfonia that, no matter whose name is on the score’s cover, Elisabetta is the opera’s protagonist. The Sinfonia invokes Providential blessing, but Devia is a queen who needs no divine intervention. Returning to this daunting rôle on her home turf, sixty miles from her native city of Chiusavecchia, and less than a month before celebrating her sixty-eighth birthday, Devia is an astonishingly assured presence at the center of the drama. The voice is drier, harder-edged, and less pliant than in years past, but the voice’s basic timbre has ever been a potent cocktail with a splash of tart limoncello. In this performance, Devia takes more time in executing fiorature than she might have done a decade ago, but she and Lanzillotta never allow momentum to be adversely affected. Still, like Sutherland in the seasons just before her retirement, Devia’s agility remains incredible. In Elisabetta’s Act One cavatina, ‘L’amor suo mi fe’ beata,’ it is immediately obvious that Devia is in excellent voice, and she utilizes her still-miraculous technique to accomplish feat after feat of superb singing. She spins the cavatina’s melodic lines like vocal silk, the thread of sound never in danger of breaking. In the Act Two duet with Nottingham, ‘Non venni mai si mesto,’ the soprano’s vocalism is at once wondrously steely and hauntingly ethereal, and Devia leaves no doubt in the trio with Nottingham and Roberto, ‘Ecco l’indegno,’ that Elisabetta is wounded to the core of her soul. Discovering too late that Sara is her rival and that even she, the most powerful woman on earth, is powerless to save Roberto from the death that she sanctioned, Elisabetta’s scene at the close of Act Three contains the opera’s most visceral music. Devia voices the poignant aria ‘Vivi ingrato, a lei d’accanto’ with intense emotional involvement, imparting the extent to which the aging queen’s happiness is dependent upon the crumbling relationships that have sustained her in the lonely years of her virginal reign. Vocally and histrionically, she remains the reigning monarch of this music. The maestoso cabaletta ‘Quel sangue versato al cielo s’innalza’ is the outward culmination of Elisabetta’s inner turmoil and one of the true peaks of dramatic bel canto. After a first statement of the cabaletta’s theme that is wracked with pain, Devia’s voice takes on an air of serenity in the repeat, the crown already lifted from her mind if not from her head. This phenomenal music needs no interpolated high notes in order to make an indelible impression, but the easy, defiant top D with which Devia concludes her performance is the ecstatic cry of a woman reclaiming her freedom. This is, after all, the heir of Henry VIII, the diminutive figure with the soaring spirit who proudly declared herself to be to the marrow of her bones the issue of her legendary sire. History relays that Henry VIII was an uncommonly accomplished singer: in that regard, Devia’s Elisabetta is indeed very much her father’s daughter.
The collector in search of good-quality recordings of Devia in her best rôles has before him difficult sleuthing. Fortunately, enthusiasts with technological ingenuity like that of Australia-based Celestial Audio have made in-house and broadcast recordings of some of Devia’s most memorable performances available to her admirers. [Celestial Audio’s newest Devia release, catalogue number CA1888, preserves an excellent 2006 La Scala-in-Tokyo performance of Verdi’s La traviata in which Devia’s Violetta was paired with Giuseppe Filianoti’s handsome, handsomely-sung Alfredo.] This Dynamic recording of Teatro Carlo Felice’s production of Roberto Devereux gratifyingly fills a lamentable gap in the documentation of one of the most remarkable careers in opera. Better late than never, it is tempting to say; but in this case, in some ways better now than ever.
La regina del bel canto: Soprano Mariella Devia as Elisabetta I in Teatro Carlo Felice’s March 2016 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux
[Photo by Marcello Orselli, © by Teatro Carlo Felice]