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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Opera Review: All Hail the Queen

The Opera Orchestra of New York presents Roberto Devereux.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Mariella Devia (here pictured in Anna Bolena) returned to Carnegie Hall Thursday night
as Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux. Photo from Opera di Florenze.
There was a definite feeling of nostalgia surrounding Thursday night's concert performance of Roberto Devereux at Carnegie Hall, the lone season offering this year from the Opera Orchestra of New York. Not only did this concert mark the return of Eve Queler to the podium, but it was also the long-awaited New York return of semi-legendary 66-year-old soprano Mariella Devia in the key role of Elizabeth I, Queen of England. This was the singer's first New York appearance in 15 years.

Roberto Devereux is a bel canto lover's dream, the third of three Donizetti operas (with Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda) referred to as the "Three Queens" trilogy. (Long lost in obscurity, these operas enjoyed a revival of interest a half-century ago, when Beverly Sills sang all three royal roles in repertory at the New York City Opera.) Here the Queen is Elizabeth I, and the opera is a fast-and-loose version of her rumored affair with Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex whose 1601 rebellion against the Crown provides the background for this tale of adultery, infidelity and its roal consequences.

In the demanding role of the Queen, Ms. Devia proved a magisterial presence, radiating energy from her side of the stage. She combined genuine vocal power with a lifetime's worth of stage experience, pacing herself through the grueling evening but still engaging fully in arias and ensembles. In the Queen's rage at being betrayed by her lover Devereux (the Earl of Essex, played by Stephen Costello) she fearlessly rose up into Donizetti's difficult ornamentation and fioratura singing, decorating each phrase with carefully placed notes.

Ms. Devia proved to be at her best in tender, intimate scenes, moments before flying off the handle as the depths of Essex' infidelity (with her favored handmaiden, no less!) revealed itself. The best part of her interpretation was the long final scene, which began with a blood-curdling vision of the headless Essex haunting her dreams--with a hollow sound in her voice that was simply blood-curdling. In her final expression of remorse, she floored the packed house with one last ringing high D.

Stephen Costello was Essex, delivering a performance that featured moments of brilliance with occasional lapses into the ordinary. From his first entrance Mr. Costello' had about him the hangdog look of defeat, making his eventual execution a foregone conclusion. He was fine in the propulsive second act, in which Essex' fate is sealed However, his final aria in the Tower of London (an idea that librettist Salvatore Cammarano recycled for Il Trovatore) ended with the singer's voice evaporating to a rasp at exactly the wrong moment.

Ms. Chauvet started the evening with a flinty, metallic tone that didn't always rest easy in the vocal line. However, she improved as the opera progressed, singing with greater warmth and flexibility in the latter part of the evening. She capped  her performance with a blistering Act III duet with Nottingham (David Pershall.) As the jealous Nottingham, Mr. Pershall was the surprise star of the opera, combining vulnerability and rage in an intense and appealing way. Another standout was bass Sava Vemic, towering and black-toned in the tiny role of Sir Walter Raleigh.

Aside from the return of Ms. Devia, the other welcome figure on this stage was Ms. Queler, the longtime leader of the Opera Orchestra of New York and currently its Conductor Emeritus. All in all this was a remarkable comeback for both orchestra and conductor, who had been silent since a disastrous Andrea Chénier (under Alberto Veronesi) last season. As Ms. Queler led her reconstituted orchestra in the overture, the trumpets and horns sounded out the familiar melody of "God Save the Queen." They might have meant it for their conductor.

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