Donizetti: Roberto Devereux

The Opera Orchestra of New York | The New York Choral Ensemble

Carnegie Hall, New York, 14 June 2014 4 stars

Devia Nearly fifteen years after her last appearance at Carnegie Hall – also with the Opera Orchestra of New York in Donizetti’s rarely performed Adelia – Mariella Devia made a thrilling, triumphant return in the same composer’s richly dramatic Roberto Devereux last Thursday evening.  In a performance that surely astonished even the most discerning listeners, Devia met every musical challenge with honesty, an amazingly well preserved voice, and a good deal of flair.  In short, it was one of those rare nights in the theater that will be remembered fondly for a lifetime.
Eve Queler established the Opera Orchestra of New York (OONY) and gave the inaugural performance more than forty years ago, in 1972.  Taken from the program: “The mission of The Opera Orchestra of New York is to present high-quality performances of seldom-heard operatic masterpieces in a concert setting featuring internationally acclaimed stars and exceptional young singers.”  As shown on OONY’s website, their performance history is impressive, with dozens of operatic rarities produced for a loyal audience, eager to hear titles unknown to the Metropolitan Opera and other New York classical venues.  Unfortunately, like many arts organizations across the globe, OONY has faced significant and debilitating financial challenges in recent years, resulting in major cutbacks in their performance schedule.  Thus, this performance of Roberto Devereux was their only offering for the 2013-14 artistic season.  Though not ‘perfect’, the performance elicited a thunderous ovation the likes of which I have rarely experienced in thirty years of attending the opera.  It remains to be seen whether such vociferously positive audience response will contribute to a push for renewed financial health for this struggling organization.
Among the many reasons the planets seemed to align for this performance was the choice of Devereux – a reasonably compact score brimming with dramatic opportunities for the principal singers.  Long a favorite among bel canto specialists, Roberto Devereux languished nearly unperformed for roughly a century until its first modern revival in Naples (1964) with the great Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer portraying Queen Elizabeth I.  Subsequently, and almost immediately, productions of the opera began propagate throughout Europe and beyond.  Many great singers have been tempted by the music Donizetti wrote for Elisabetta – by turns lyrical, vengeful, tender, and powerful.  In addition to Gencer, Montserrat Caballé and Beverly Sills did much to advance the popularity of the opera - the latter was especially influential with a studio recording made in 1969 and appearances as Elisabetta at the New York City Opera during the early 1970’s.  Since her remarkable debut as Elisabetta in 1990, the most important interpreter of the present day has been Slovak soprano Edita Gruberovà, who, like Devia, continues to perform the role well into her 60’s.
The score for Devereux is full of attractive melodies and affords all of the four central characters ample opportunity to grab the spotlight if the singers are capable of meeting Donizetti’s significant vocal demands.  It was the last of five operas Donizetti composed for Italian soprano Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis, a gifted singer known throughout Europe for her assumptions of many of the most difficult bel canto roles.  According to the music composed for Elisabetta, Ronzi must have had both a strong low register and a flair for dramatic confrontations.  At first glance, neither of these attributes seems ideally suited to the strengths offered by Mariella Devia who is known for the cool, crystalline precision of her high register and carefully calculated approach to the histrionic requirements of the roles she sings. Since making her stage debut in the early 1970’s, Devia has been shrewd in the management of her career, judiciously adding new roles to her repertoire as her voice has aged and biding her time before assuming heavier, more dramatic characters.  Thus, it was only as she neared age sixty that she agreed to perform such iconic roles as Norma, Anna Bolena, and finally, Elisabetta.  Now, at 66, Devia surely can afford to take some vocal risks, and her portrayal of the aging queen was rife with the poignancy of a personal connection to the emotions of an aging monarch.
At her first appearance in Act 1, Devia was greeted with warm applause, and as she began to sing, it became immediately apparent that her voice is remarkably well preserved.  It seems impolite to focus on her age, but there can be no denying that voices falter as part of the natural aging process for all singers.  Contrary to this, Devia has rather miraculously maintained absolutely steady tone, excellent diction, reasonable fluidity in coloratura, and perfect accuracy in pitch.  These facets of her performance alone would merit admiration, but she offered a fully developed interpretation of the tormented queen that went well beyond merely singing the notes.  Rather than re-writing some of her music in order to avoid the low-lying passages as other sopranos have done (most notably, Sills), Devia sang the score as written, only varying the vocal line on repeats of phrases in the bel canto tradition. While the low register has always been the weakest part of her voice, she showed remarkable fidelity to the score, despite occasional moments of gravelly tone and being covered by the orchestra.  Rather than detracting from the performance, these moments of vocal frailty actually added to the dignity and tragic stature of her character.
One of the distinguishing aspects of Devia’s artistry is her uncanny ability to stylishly ornament the vocal line with unique variations and seeming spontaneity.  Her abilities in this regard remain undiminished, and she crafted ornaments that suited Elisabetta’s many moods, from her initial excitement for Devereux’s return to court, through suspicion and anger at his betrayal, and finally to brief resignation followed by a descent into the near madness of grief.  Using the texts superbly, she fully inhabited the emotional shifts of her mercurial character, allowing the movement and colors of her voice to create a vibrant portrait of the heart-broken queen.  There were moments in the performance when the entire audience was absolutely still – not producing the slightest noise – as Devia spun out phrases with incredible breath control and long, arching phrases.  I will long remember these moments as being frozen in time – snapshots held in my memory of one of the greatest bel canto singers of the last half-century.  When, at the very end of her final, lurching cabaletta, Devia launched a stupendous, ringing high D, the audience erupted – covering the final bars of orchestral music and expanding into a roar of approval, among the loudest and longest sustained I have ever witnessed in person.  It was a performance that will be long remembered in New York – one of those “you had to be there” moments when a singer surpasses every expectation.
It hardly mattered, given the majesty of Devia’s contribution to the event, but none of the remaining artists came close to reaching her level of distinction.  Mezzo-soprano Géraldine Chauvet sang with handsome tone, but was miscast as the queen’s rival for Devereux’s affections, Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham.  The role has an uncomfortably high tessitura for most modern-day mezzos, though some, such as Shirley Verrett and Sonia Ganassi have made excellent impressions in the part.  Chauvet had to lunge unattractively for the highest notes, and seemed generally uncomfortable all evening.  Most damagingly, she was glued to her score, rarely looking up to take account of her fellow singers or the conductor.  Baritone David Pershall was excellent as the Duke of Nottingham, though the role is one or two sizes too large for his youthful, lyric voice.  While he was not able to imbue the role with an ideally authoritative timbre, his efforts toward characterization and alert interaction with the others on stage were admirable.  Like Devia, his pitch was impeccable.  Among the secondary roles, bass Sama Vemic was outstanding in his brief role as Sir Walter Raleigh, displaying a large, dark voice that should surely guarantee a bright future in leading roles.  Bass-baritone André Courville and tenor John Kapusta also made positive contributions in their small roles.
The only major disappointment of the evening was the performance by tenor Stephen Costello, as Roberto Devereux.  His singing started out shaky – frequently off pitch, phrases awkwardly broken for breaths, high notes lunged at, words nearly unintelligible – and never improved.  Rarely attempting to interact musically with his colleagues, his stylistic approach had little to do with the basic tenets of bel canto technique; his singing was disfigured by monochromatic, nasal tone, obvious register shifts, and crass, unattractive high notes.  In addition, he brought little to the stage in terms of characterization or emotion beyond slouching posture and a look of utter hopelessness.  Unfortunately, I have noticed many of the poor vocal habits in Costello’s previous performances, and so it doesn’t appear that he is working on improving his technique or studying the correct style for bel canto opera.
As a conductor, Eve Queler has always been more ‘dutiful school marm’ than ‘inspired musician’ and this performance was no different: tempi were often uninspired, and her attempts to follow the singers often resulted in unsightly bulges in the vocal line.  The chorus sounded superb throughout, but the orchestra offered an astringent mixture of wrong notes and botched entrances along with several lovely woodwind solos.  Appropriately, the juxtaposition of good with bad fits aptly with the long OONY performance tradition.  Looking through their concert chronology, I have attended approximately 35 OONY events over the years, and all of them might have been improved in some way or another.  Still, many outstanding individual performances buoyed the reputation of this fine organization, and hopefully, they will find the means to continue producing concerts in future seasons.  Queler and her forces are owed a profound debt of gratitude for their many years of service, and especially for providing the context for a return of reigning bel canto queen Mariella Devia to New York.  Judging by this appearance, Devia should be able to give thrilling performances for several more years.  Let’s hope she comes back to Carnegie Hall at least one more time.

By David Laviska

Photo Credits: The Opera Orchestra of New York