Among the many ways Europe is superior to the United States is that opera audiences on the continent have significantly more opportunities to hear Italian soprano Mariella Devia sing. New York fans, though, were treated to a rare performance Thursday night at Carnegie Hall when Devia headlined Opera Orchestra of New York’s (OONY) concert of Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto drama Roberto Devereux. Neither Devia nor Roberto Devereux is particularly well-known outside committed opera circles, but the large Carnegie Hall audience received the event with enthusiasm, and responded to the finale—a long scene with two showpiece arias for Devia—with an organic, involuntary, ecstatic ovation. It was well-deserved.
Donizetti was evidently interested in—bordering on obsession—the British Tudors; he composed multiple operas about Elizabeth I (Elisabetta) and one about Anne Boleyn, her mother. Roberto was the Earl of Essex, a much younger love interest of Elizabeth late in her life, and at the start of the opera he has just returned to London to face charges of treason. Elizabeth tries to spare him, but intrigue and some operatic coincidences ultimately result in his beheading in time for the queen’s last dramatic, heart-rending aria “Quel sangue versato” (“That spilled blood / rises to heaven”).
Despite being in her 60s, Devia sang the role of Elisabetta with expert agility and control. She used ornaments intelligently to drive the emotional impact of her role, and she phrased Donizetti’s beautiful melodies with elegance and sophisticated musicianship. Particularly in the final scene, she upped the showmanship and was simply dazzling, giving an veritable lesson in bel canto style. In the spare concert format—no staging, no action, no costumes—the drama with which she finished the opera and the palpable excitement she aroused in the audience was remarkable and moving.
Stephen Costello, a tenor with a high-profile career, was less moving. He has a big, gorgeous voice, but his stage presence was distractingly stiff and he displayed little emotional engagement. That resulted in a rather soulless performance in what is supposed to be essentially a melodrama. This Roberto, however, was an improvement over his surprisingly disappointing Percy in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 Anna Bolena—another Donizetti Tudor opera—so at least that’s movement in the right direction.
The Duke of Nottingham was sung by young baritone David Pershall. Sounding strong, he brought engagement and commitment to the role. His performance was rather monochromatic, though, for a character that really could have benefitted from more subtlety and variety of affect. Nottingham begins the opera as Roberto’s friend and defender. In the second act, he realizes that the woman Roberto truly loves, the woman for whom he disappoints the queen who could have saved his life, is Nottingham’s wife Sara. By the end, even though Elisabetta and Sara are both trying to save the condemned Roberto, it is Nottingham who thwarts them. When they hear that the execution has taken place, he angrily announces “I wanted blood, and I obtained blood.”
As Sara, French mezzo soprano Géraldine Chauvet did deliver more complexity and emotional range, but she did occasionally get drowned out by the orchestra. OONY founder and driving force Eve Queler conducted. Roberto Devereux has some lovely music, and the orchestra sounded crisp and exciting. The overture has an extended sample of “God Save the Queen,” the characters being British royals, and that got a chuckle from the audience.
After Devia’s clarion high D at the end of “Quel sangue versato,” the audience was unable to remain in their seats through the final orchestral notes, the integrity of the score be damned. Everyone was there for the rare, live U.S. experience of Devia’s Elisabetta. From her, figuratively (!), they wanted blood and they got it.