07 December 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti — ROBERTO DEVEREUX (A. Owens, R. Mantegna, E. DeShong, R. J. Rivera, D. O’Hearn, K. Wilkerson, A. Yergiyev, J. Sacín; Washington Concert Opera, 4 December 2022)

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) soprano ROBERTA MANTEGNA as Elisabetta, conductor ANTONY WALKER, and tenor ANDREW OWENS as Roberto in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's ROBERTO DEVEREUX, 4 December 2022 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © Washington Concert Opera]GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Roberto Devereux; ossia Il conte di EssexAndrew Owens (Roberto Devereux, conte di Essex), Roberta Mantegna (Elisabetta prima, regina d’Inghilterra), Elizabeth DeShong (Sara, duchessa di Nottingham), Ricardo José Rivera (Il duca di Nottingham), Daniel O’Hearn (Lord Cecil), Kerry Wilkerson (Sir Gualtiero Raleigh), Andrew Bawden Yergiyev (Un paggio), José Sacín (Un familiare di Nottingham); Washington Concert Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Antony Walker, conductor [Washington Concert Opera, Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA; Sunday, 4 December 2022]

The student of history who relies upon tutelage gleaned from opera is unlikely to be found at the head of the class. Fascinating and fantastical as history often is, many operatic depictions of historical events and personages are more fanciful than factual. The fateful confrontation between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I that ends Act Two of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, for example, is riveting theater but was devised by Friedrich von Schiller, from whose play Mary Stuart the libretto for Donizetti’s opera was derived. Surviving historical evidence indicates that Mary and Elizabeth never met, but their encounter in Maria Stuarda is a manifestation of a penchant for dramatizing the plights of historical figures that permeated literature and opera in the Nineteenth Century. Returning to Tudor England in Roberto Devereux, Donizetti again followed source material beyond the fringes of substantiated history. Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, was executed for treason in 1601 after masterminding a rebellion intended to deprive Elizabeth of her throne, but, contrary to the events that transpire in Act Three of Roberto Devereux, his sentence neither hastened the Queen’s death nor precipitated abdication. Fact may well be stranger than fiction, but history is sometimes considerably more engrossing in the opera house than in academic tomes.

Commissioned by Teatro di San Carlo, at which theater the opera premièred on 27 October 1837, Roberto Devereux advanced a relationship with Naples that, by 1837, encompassed successful first stagings of new works, the most notable of which was Lucia di Lammermoor, not only at the San Carlo but also at the city᾿s Teatrp del Fondo and Teatro Nuovo. Following Roberto Devereux, Donizetti would write only another pair of operas for Naples, Poliuto and Caterina Cornaro, instead transitioning his attention to London, Paris, and Vienna. Composed during a time of tremendous personal strife, his young wife dying only a few weeks after delivering a child who died at birth, Roberto Devereux was perhaps a welcome distraction for Donizetti, its complicated genesis—upon the opera᾿s completion, an outbreak of cholera delayed rehearsals for the inaugural production—shaping the score᾿s dramatic confrontations and psychological perspicacity. Neapolitan audiences and critics responded enthusiastically to the theatrical vigor of Donizetti᾿s music, and the success of the first staging was repeated throughout Europe in the decade prior to the composer᾿s death in 1848. The extent to which this appreciative reception for Roberto Devereux was a source of consolation for its grieving composer can only be conjectured, but it can also be theorized that telling the story of a woman who, despite her dedication to duty, casts aside both life and crown when the pain inflicted by them overwhelm her must have been cathartic for the despairing Donizetti.

At the time of his collaboration on Roberto Devereux, Neapolitan poet and playwright Salvadore Cammarano had already provided Donizetti with libretti for Lucia di Lammermoor, Belisario, L᾿assedio di Calais, and Pia de᾿ Tolomei. Texts for Maria de Rudenz, Poliuto, and Maria di Rohan would follow in the final decade of Donizetti᾿s life. His work on Alzira in 1845 began a partnership with Giuseppe Verdi that, during the next eight years, would produce La battaglia di Legnano, Luisa Miller, and Il trovatore. In his adaptation of Jacques-François Ancelot᾿s 1829 drama Elisabeth d᾿Angleterre, itself derived from tragedies by Pierre Corneille and Gauthier de Costes, Cammarano transformed these literary treatments of the troubled liaison between Queen Elizabeth I and the second Earl of Essex into a libretto charged with heated conflicts and Italian morbidezza, qualities that unquestionably appealed to Donizetti in his state of anguish. The union of the composer᾿s music with the librettist᾿s words yielded a work that advanced bel canto from the Rossinian scores of the first half of Donizetti᾿s career to the Romantic intensity of Verdi᾿s middle period.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) bass-baritone KERRY WILKERSON as Lord Gualtiero Raleigh, tenor DANIEL O'HEARN as Lord Cecil, soprano ROBERTA MANTEGNA as Elisabetta, tenor ANDREW OWENS as Roberto, and baritone RICARDO JOSÉ RIVERA as Nottingham in Washinhton Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's ROBERTO DEVEREUX, 4 December 2022 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Da Londra, con trama: (from left to right) bass-baritone Kerry Wilkerson as Sir Gualtiero Raleigh, tenor Daniel O’Hearn as Lord Cecil, soprano Roberta Mantegna as Elisabetta, tenor Andrew Owens as Roberto, and baritone Ricardo José Rivera as Nottingham in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, 4 December 2022
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

The gestational accents of Verdian musical language that are heard in virtually every bar of Roberto Devereux proved to be ideal fodder for the vivid conducting of Washington Concert Opera’s Artistic Director Antony Walker. Even more acutely than in the company’s memorable 2004 performance of the opera, Walker asserted the efficacy of presenting Roberto Devereux in concert. The bel canto operas that have been the core of WCO’s repertoire since founder Stephen Crout’s 1990 performance of Bellini’s I puritani benefit tremendously from the heightened focus on musical values that concert performances facilitate, and this traversal of Roberto Devereux demonstrated the theatrical savvy with which Donizetti molded his music to the drama. From the first page of the opera’s overture, composed in 1838 for the piece’s Paris première, Walker established and sustained dramatic momentum. Gifted with a cast capable of meeting every challenge of his propulsive approach to the score, he chose tempi that were wholly apt for music and drama, his pacing fashioning a performance in which the characters’ emotional evolutions were captivatingly depicted. Walker’s conducting invariably excites, but this evening at Lisner Auditorium found him on best form, the power and pathos of Donizetti’s music and Cammarano’s words elucidated with uncompromising musicality.

In the eighteen years since Walker last conducted Roberto Devereux for WCO, the company’s orchestra and chorus, the latter prepared for this 2022 performance by chorus master David Hanlon, have markedly elevated their standards of musical integrity and reliability. In this performance, the orchestral playing was often very good, the limited rehearsal time that is an intrinsic aspect of WCO’s endeavors fomenting few problems on this evening. The consistency of balances among sections of the orchestra permitted appreciation of details of Donizetti’s part writing, not least in passages for woodwinds, which in the title character’s Act Three prison scene were in this performance unmistakably linked to Beethoven’s introduction to Florestan’s scene at the beginning of Act Two of Fidelio. The choral singing also exhibited the advantages of increased concentration on equalizing the sound, individual voices more integrated into the aural tableaux than in past WCO performances. Despite at times being confined to a stool by a knee energy, Walker marshaled the orchestral and choral forces with his usual vigor, drawing from them sounds both imposing and delicate, as bel canto requires.

Character development in Roberto Devereux ventures little beyond the quartet of principals, but Donizetti’s music for secondary rôles is not devoid of technical and theatrical demands. Bass-baritone Andrew Bawden Yergiyev sang forcefully in the Paggio’s brief appearance in Act One, and baritone José Sacín delivered the lines for un familiare di Nottingham in the scene at the start of Act Three powerfully. Not as intriguing a figure in Roberto Devereux as in history, Sir Gualtiero Raleigh was nonetheless animated by the spirited vocalism of bass-baritone Kerry Wilkerson, who sang ‘Fu disarmato’ in the Act Two scene with Elisabetta robustly. Stepping into the rôle of Lord Cecil at the proverbial eleventh hour, tenor Daniel O’Hearn voiced every note of the part eloquently, his timbre burnished throughout the range and his ease of navigating the passaggio indicating expert technical assurance.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenors DANIEL O'HEARN as Lord Cecil and ANDREW OWENS as Roberto and baritone RICARDO JOSÉ RIVERA as Nottingham in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's ROBERTO DEVEREUX, 4 December 2022 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Il duca tradito: (from left to right) tenors Daniel O’Hearn as Lord Cecil and Andrew Owens as Roberto and baritone Ricardo José Rivera as Nottingham in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, 4 December 2022
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Bringing an instrument of fine quality to his singing of Donizetti’s music for Il duca di Nottingham, baritone Ricardo José Rivera convincingly imparted the Duke’s rampant pride, the trait that makes him first an ardent friend and later a dangerous enemy to Roberto. Rivera voiced Nottingham’s Act One cavatina ‘Forse in quel cor sensibile’ confidently, his tonal production as firm at the bottom of the range as at the exhilarating top. His account of the cabaletta ‘Qui ribelle ognun ti chiama’ was invigorating, the Duke’s musical kinship with Verdi’s Rigoletto and Conte di Luna especially apparent as the baritone ascended above the stave in the coda. Nottingham’s metamorphosis in Act Two from friend defending Essex from the Queen’s ire to wronged husband seeking revenge was persuasively depicted, Rivera’s plangent singing of ‘Non venni mai sì mesto’ in the duettino with Elisabetta contrasting tellingly with the vehemence with which he articulated ‘Ah! la spada, la spada un istante’ in the subsequent terzetto.

The full weight of Rivera’s voice was deployed in Act Three, when Nottingham accosts his wife and prevents her from delivering to the raging Queen the means of rescuing Roberto from the scaffold. In the duetto with Sara, Rivera sang ‘Noi sai, che un nume vindice’ with startling intensity, the unshakable security of his tones mitigating blustery delivery more suited to verismo than to bel canto. In the opera’s final scene, he declaimed Nottingham’s malicious declaration of responsibility for the subterfuge that prevented Sara from appealing to the Queen to save Roberto’s life with vitriol and a brief suggestion of regret. There were few subtleties in Rivera’s performance, but Nottingham is not a character upon whom Donizetti lavished an array of nuances. Even without significant variations of dynamics and vocal inflections, Rivera’s bold, bronzed singing lent Nottingham greater depth than stereotypical operatic villains often muster.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano ELIZABETH DESHONG as Sara in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's ROBERTO DEVEREUX, 4 December 2022 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]La duchessa refulgente: mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Sara in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, 4 December 2022
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong’s portrayal of the general Calbo in WCO’s 2021 performance of Rossini’s Maometto secondo [reviewed here] was spectacular, but hearing her singing on that memorable evening was inadequate preparation for experiencing her rôle début as Sara, duchessa di Nottingham. Beginning the opera with her romanza ‘All’afflitto è dolce il pianto,’ Sara serves as the catalyst for the opera’s drama, her illicit love for the Queen’s favorite inadvertently begetting the jealousy that leads Roberto to the block. DeShong sang the romanza enchantingly, her phrasing of the arching melodic line limning the duchess’s private despair. Her true feelings hidden from Elisabetta and Nottingham, Sara first proclaims her fidelity to her love for Roberto and then realizes that they must not see one another again in one of Donizetti’s most gripping duets. DeShong voiced ‘Eri già lunge, quando si chiuse’ commandingly, communicating the character’s churning emotions but always maintaining an authentic bel canto line. In the duet’s cabaletta, she enunciated ‘Ah! Questo addio fatale‘ compellingly, the top B♭s utterly secure.

Rising intrepidly to top B, DeShong’s upper register inspired awe throughout the performance, but her singing in Act Three was particularly notable as a veritable masterclass in the art of acting through the voice. Sara’s duetto with Nottingham is another of Donizetti’s best ensembles, and DeShong voiced ‘Tanto il destin fremente’ blazingly, the meaning of every word imparted with specificity. Sara’s crucial lines in the opera’s final scene were also sung with immediacy, the singer’s shimmering timbre accentuating the sincerity of Sara’s dismay. In this concert setting, DeShong gave Sara emotional dimensions that she sometimes lacks in staged productions, her vocalism distinguishing her as a peer of Bruna Castagna, Ebe Stignani, and Giulietta Simionato as an exponent of dramatic bel canto.

IN REVIEW: tenor ANDREW OWENS as Roberto in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's ROBERTO DEVEREUX, 4 December 2022 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Il conte di sospiri: tenor Andrew Owens as Roberto in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, 4 December 2022
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Tenor Andrew Owens’s rôle début as the eponymous Earl of Essex was a triumph over adversities. The stress of assuming such a daunting part on short notice was compounded in the performance by an indisposition that increasingly imperiled his vocal production as the evening progressed. He traversed Act One masterfully, voicing ‘Domata in campo la ribelle schiera’ in the duet with Elisabetta with stylistic fluency and dispatching ‘Nascondi, frena i palpiti’ in the cabaletta with vocal and dramatic bravado. Owens partnered DeShong splendidly in Roberto’s duet with Sara, delivering ‘Allor che tacita’ with urgency and capping ‘Ah! Questo addio fatale’ with his own brilliant top B♭s. The disintegration of the Earl’s safety introduced an aura of uncertainty into his characterization in the Act Two terzetto with Elisabetta and Nottingham, but his vocalism disclosed no vulnerability, the technique equal to every musical obstacle.

The ill effects of the malady that plagued Owens were most evident in Roberto’s prison scene in Act Three, in which the condemned Earl laments his fate. ‘A ti dirò, fra gli ultimi singhiozzi’ was nobly sung despite the hoarseness that grew more pronounced in the aria’s closing bars. The voice constricted by throat congestion, his performance of the cabaletta ‘Bagnato il sen di lagrime’ was an example of an impeccably-trained singer artfully overcoming debilitating circumstances. Singing certain passages an octave lower than written, Owens conserved the voice sagaciously and rallied for a stretta in which he soared to an easy top C♯. The conditions with which he bravely contended notwithstanding, Owens achieved an auspicious rôle début, the excellence of his best singing matched by his courage in the Earl’s final moments.

IN REVIEW: soprano ROBERTA MANTEGNA as Elisabetta in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's ROBERTO DEVEREUX, 4 December 2022 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Non regno, non vivo: soprano Roberta Mantegna as Elisabetta in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, 4 December 2022
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Making her USA début in this performance, soprano Roberta Mantegna was experienced in her rôle, her portrayal of Elisabetta having been featured in a lauded 2020 semi-staged production of Roberto Devereux at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice. This acquaintance with the part was apparent in her performance in Washington. Upon her entrance in Act One, she was an Elisabetta already succumbing to doubt and insecurity, the lovely sheen of her voicing of the Larghetto cavatina ‘L’amor suo mi fe’ beata’ shaded by glimpses of darker sentiments that lurked still more prominently in the cabaletta ‘Ah! ritorna qual ti spero,’ in which the soprano’s top Bs and Cs evoked defiance. Girlish impetuosity remained a facet of the aging Queen’s constitution in her duet with Roberto, Mantegna singing ‘Un tenero core mi rese felice’ and the cabaletta ‘Un lampo orribile’ with passionate abandon.

The disconsolate monarch inwardly desiring to yield to Nottingham’s pleas for clemency for Essex in Act Two, sadness could be discerned in Mantegna’s vocalism in the duettino with the Duke, but fury and indignation resounded in her ‘D’una rivale occulta.’ Her cry of ‘Ecco l’indegno!’ as Roberto appeared was piercing, and the expressivity of her account of ‘Alma infida, ingrato core’ divulged the profundity of the Queen’s love for the errant Earl. Forsaking her score in order to act with body and voice, Mantegna movingly limned the tragic grandeur of Elisabetta’s grief-laden unraveling in the last scene of Act Three. The Bellinian line of ‘Vivi, ingrato, a lei d’accanto’ was voiced expansively and with special radiance above the stave. Often approached as a de facto mad scene, the engrossing cabaletta ‘Quel sangue versato’ was in Mantegna’s performance an exasperated surrender to a destiny over which even the most powerful queen had no dominion, the top Bs sonic gestures of liberating capitulation.

Though the opera has gradually gained a tenuous foothold in the repertoire owing to occasional performances by companies including New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera and espousal by organizations like American Opera Society, Opera Orchestra of New York, and Washington Concert Opera, American audiences have not yet embraced Roberto Devereux with the sort of affection with which L’elisir d’amore, Don Pasquale, La fille du régiment, and Lucia di Lammermoor are regarded. Just as Roberto Devereux distorts history in pursuit of theatrical potency, Washington Concert Opera’s 2022 performance wrote an important new chapter in the opera’s story.