Monday 1 November 2021

Back with a bang: Donizetti's Roberto Devereux from Chelsea Opera Group with Helena Dix and Eleazar Rodrigues

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex after Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex
after Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.

Donizetti Roberto Devereux; Helena Dix, Catherine Carby, Eleazar Rodriguez, Julien Van Mellaerts, Gary Matthewman, Chelsea Opera Group

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 31 October 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Returning in terrific form, Helena Dix gives a stupendous account of Elisabetta in Chelsea Opera Group's welcome return in a vivid ensemble performance of Roberto Devereux

Chelsea Opera Group's plans for its 70th birthday in 2020 included a celebratory performance of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux with Australian soprano Helena Dix in the role of Elisabetta, following on from her triumphant performance as Bellini's Norma with the company in 2018 [see my review], and to say the road to finally performing the work was eventful, is something of an understatement. Not only did COVID cause the cancellation of the planned performance, but Helena Dix caught COVID (thankfully recovered, she made a triumphant return to Australia for performances of Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito and Lady Macbeth in Verdi's Macbeth), the original conductor Andrew Greenwood, sadly, died in January 2021 and the original tenor, Chris Turner (who had sung Pollione in COG's 2018 performance of Norma) had to drop out at the very last minute owing to a bereavement. Thankfully replacements were found, Gary Matthewman took over conducting duties and Mexican-American tenor Eleazar Rodriguez stepped into the role of Roberto.

On Sunday 31 October 2021, Gary Matthewman conducted Chelsea Opera Group at Cadogan Hall in Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, with Helena Dix as Elisabetta, Eleazar Rodriguez as Roberto, Catherine Carby as Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, Julien Van Mellaerts as the Duke of Nottingham, James Platt as Sir Walter Raleigh, Steven Aviss as Lord Cecil and Edward Jowle as a page and a servant

Donizetti's opera premiered in Naples in 1837 with a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano. Cammarano had already written the libretto for several operas for Donizetti including Lucia di Lammermoor (1835). The opera came at a time of personal turmoil for Donizetti, as both his wife and child died in 1837 and the production was delayed by an outbreak of cholera in the city. Donizetti's relations with the officials in Naples could also be problematic. An autocratic monarchy, Naples was subject to rather a repressive regime and the King kept a close watch on subjects that were allowed in the opera, so censorship was a repeated problem. This would come to a head in 1838 when the King's banning of Donizetti's Poliuto shortly before it was due to be premiered caused Donizetti to leave the city and vow never to return (he would turn Poliuto into Les Martyrs and premiere it at the Paris Opera).

This perhaps partly explains the fondness for British historical subjects in Italian operas of the period, Donizetti would write at least four operas involving various members of the Tudors. As Protestant monarchs, these characters were expected to behave badly which meant that censors would allow a great deal more leeway when dealing with dramas about Protestant monarchs than with Roman Catholic ones. 

Like the majority of Donizetti's opera, Roberto Devereux seemed to drop out of the repertoire after the 1880s and was not revived until Leyla Gencer sang the role of Elisabetta in Naples in 1964. Since then the opera has managed to keep a grip on the fringes of the repertoire. Opera Holland Park performed it in 2009, and Welsh National Opera performed it in 2013 [see my review] as part of a Tudor Queens trilogy and it was revived in 2019 [see my review]. Covent Garden managed concert performances in 2002 [recorded for Opera Rara] but like many companies, when looking for serious Donizetti as an alternative to Lucia di Lammermoor, the company has generally reached for Maria Stuarda.

In three acts, but relatively compact, Roberto Devereux is based on a French play and features an ahistorical view of history. Though the opera is relatively true to its French source materials, we can also detect outlines of a previous Donizetti hit, Maria Stuarda (premiered at La Scala in 1835). Again we have a vengeful and jealous Elisabetta, a sympathetic and put-upon rival, a tenor torn between the two, prison and more. But where Maria Stuarda's focus is on Maria, the put-upon rival, in Roberto Devereux the focus is on Elisabetta. Though she does not get a huge amount of stage time, the final act is Elisabetta's; it is she who closes things. The tenor in the title role does get a climactic prison scene, but the soprano's final aria rather trumps this.

Whilst the singers performed from scores, they were standing and made the relevant entrances and exits. Both Helena Dix and Eleazar Rodriguez had performed their roles on stage, and this showed. The two developed a strong interaction in all their scenes and this spilt over into the other singers, so this was a very dramatic concert performance, and all the better for it.

Helena Dix has a very expressive face, and throughout the opera when she was on stage she was reacting to something. The way she turned round to the chorus (behind her) and summarily dismissed the court was pure theatre, and there were many such moments. Her Elisabetta was a prime manipulator, you could see her contemplating her next move in the introduction to every aria. Dix has a very malleable voice, able to rise easily over the orchestra where necessary, float elegant phrases above the stave and still find the power for full-blooded low notes. The result was a very changeable Elisabetta, liable to be volcanic one moment and seductive the next. Dix was stylish in her fioriture, and the florid writing was both technically secure and expressive, but what counted here was the terrific character she brought to the performance, making every note, every moment count. Yes, this was a great showpiece, a diva opera par excellence, but in Elisabetta, Dix made us believe in this terrifyingly vivid person.

Like many tenors in 19th-century opera, Roberto is a bit of a prat and his actions in the opera (acquiring an incriminating scarf from his beloved Sara and giving her a ring which his life depends on) are on a par with his (historical) actions in Ireland which he is on trial for. Rodriguez has a fine, robust tenor which all the necessary combinations of power and flexibility. He made Roberto sympathetic and had us rooting for him. Whilst he has two double arias (both cavatina plus cabaletta), he also has a duet with Sara and a trio with Elisabetta and Nottingham and it is here, plus in the terrific scene with Elisabetta in Act One, that we really feel Roberto's character develop, and here both Dix and Rodriguez struck sparks off each other in a vivid manner in all their dialogues, really making Donizetti's accompanied recitatives crackle. And there was a similar intensity in Rodriguez scenes with Catherine Carby's Sara. His final scene, in prison, was the moment to shine and Rodriguez sang with real conviction, style and dramatic intensity.

Donizetti's operas from the 1830s largely involved either out-and-out bad girls or put-upon and traduced good girls. Sara is the latter and it is fatally easy to make her rather wet and passive. Here Catherine Carby brought a wonderful poise and sense of style to the music whilst all the time giving you a feeling of Sara's underlying strength of character. Carby made Sara interesting; moving in her opening romance and then terrific in the duets with Roberto and with Nottingham. This was one of those performances where all the ensembles fairly crackled, not just a couple of key ones.

This sense of dramatic energy carried over into the smaller roles. Julien Van Mellaerts had great fun with Nottingham who starts out as reliable and sympathetic to Roberto, a good friend, but on discovering that Roberto loves Sara, his wife, Nottingham turns vengeful and Van Mellaerts really made us feel the change, without ever blustering. This was a finely sung account of the role, but one full of character, and also a lovely flexible top to his voice. James Platt brought equal character to the smaller role of Raleigh, making you regret that Donizetti never wrote more for him. Steven Aviss rather got the short straw as Lord Cecil, seeming required to come in, announce things, and disappear again, but Aviss did so with style. Edward Jowle (a member of the Royal College of Music's Opera Studio) provided strong support as a pair of servants.

This is very much a soloists opera, the chorus is generally simply there to support them and Donizetti does not write the sort of complex choral scenes which Rossini had done for Naples 20 years before. There was, however, plenty for the chorus to do both as a full ensemble and split into women and men. Perhaps slightly smaller in number than usual, the chorus provided admirable support and brought a different range of colours to the mix.

Gary Matthewman drew fine playing from the orchestra from the first moments of the overture (the one Donizetti added for Paris in 1838, which rather bizarrely includes 'God Save the Queen'!)., and throughout  the evening, the orchestra was on superb form. Matthewman's accompaniment was finely sympathetic without ever giving too much leeway, his was a performance that flowed. In the work's extensive accompanied recitatives, however, there were sometimes moments when you wished he kept the orchestra on a tighter rein so that it did not dominate.

This was a performance of which any opera house might have been proud, not just the two principal but everyone; there was an intense feeling of ensemble here, and of bel canto as drama. But in the end, the evening, was, of course, the diva's as Helena Dix brought the house down with a terrific account of her final aria.

Chelsea Opera Group returns on 3 April 2022 with Verdi's rarely performed first opera Oberto, conducted by Matthew Scott Rogers with Anush Hovhannisyan and Carolyn Dobbin. Further ahead there is Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurydice to look forward to with Gary Matthewman, Caitlin Hulcup and Fflur Wyn.

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