And with this performance of Roberto Devereux, Mariella Devia has concluded her presentation of the so-called “Tudor Trilogy”. We all know that Donizetti never intended these three operas as a trilogy, and as a matter of fact, if one wants to take into consideration everything he wrote about a Tudor sovereign, it should be more correct to talk about a tetralogy, since in 1829, just one year before his ground-breaking Anna Bolena, he composed another work, Il castello di Kenilworth, where Queen Elizabeth once again frets over one of her favourites, this time, just as in Maria Stuarda, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Coincidentally Ms. Devia is the only soprano to have ever sung the main female lead in all four operas, and she may remain so for a long time, considering that Il castello di Kenilworth, which failed miserably at its 1829 premiere, did not fare much better at the two modern exhumations, the Opera Rara attempt in 1977 and the 1989 Bergamo mise-en-scène , with Ms. Devia as the Virgin Queen.
The Italian belcantista gave the Florentine audience a first taste of her queens in 2011 in a concert that included the three finales; one year later she appeared in a staged production of Anna Bolena, in 2013 it was Maria Stuarda’s turn and now finally the one of Roberto Devereux, an opera she had previously sung only in one performance in Marseille three years ago. It is not difficult to understand the reason Ms. Devia has in the last few years made Maria Stuarda the staple of her current repertory, while her approaches to Bolena and particularly Devereux have been much sparser (and so far she has always performed the latter only in concert). I am sure that even her most fervent admirers – and I have been among them for at least thirty years – will concede that her essentially light-lyric instrument was not born to sing operas such as Anna Bolena, Il pirata, Norma and Devereux, but her technical dexterity and musicianship are of such magnitude as to make one forget about this basic unsuitability. Although she does not have the thrust of a Ronzi De Begnis, the creator of the part, or other sopranos of our era (such as Leyla Gencer, who sang it at the first performance in the twentieth century), Devia is nevertheless constantly in charge of the role. Her silver clarity and technical agility are not surprising, and in the more flamboyant dramatic passages her projection of the text is telling even when sheer vocal weight is not, a monumental achievement for someone who has been often accused (and not without reason) to be a rather placid virtuosa totally absorbed in her perfect vocal delivery. The weakest points of her performance were – as expected -the descents to the neighbourhood of middle C, though she ferociously nailed the famous two-octave leap from C 5 to C 3, with perfect intonation as well. Although limited by the concert performance confines, Ms. Devia must be credited with the possession of the dramatic sense of the character of Elisabetta, or better, the construction of a personality in a crescendo of passion and fury, in a progressive amplification of suffering meant as human redemption. Tenderness, transport, remembrance: this is how Elisabetta is introduced as she is waiting for her lover. Then wrath takes over, but Roberto’s death redeems all this vortex of feelings. All of this was expressed in Ms. Devia’s performance: from the shiny Bellinian cavatina to the vulnerability of her duet with Roberto, to the stabbing she experiences at the realization that he no longer loves her. Devia’s Elisabetta is less aggressive, overbearing and domineering than other interpreters of the roles (and for me the touchstone remains Leyla Gencer); although she does not fail to give proof of her regal power, she doesn’t play it on the level of spectacular and exterior gestures; she pays more attention to the secret vibrations of the character, and there are moments of extraordinary penetration in depth revealing an amazing range of feelings, all the more remarkable considering the more halcyon approach she used to take in a not so distant past. From a mere vocal point of view, I would be hard pressed to mention another singer with the same floating quality, the same complete immascheramento, and perfect breath control. Observing Ms. Devia dosing her breath is like watching the constant steady flow of sand through an hourglass. For the record, quite uncharacteristically of her, she did not end any of her set pieces with a puntatura to the octave above, including the D 6 she had insouciantly tossed three years ago (or just a couple of months ago in a Verona Stuarda)
One writes Roberto Devereux and reads Elisabetta I, and yet the tenor, albeit overshadowed by one of the most histrionic characters in Italian opera, is still an important musical presence in the opera. From a dramatic point of view, he is even a paler presence than Leicester in Maria Stuarda: at least the latter is trying to achieve something, even if, due to his stupidity, every move he makes blows up in his face. Devereux is an utterly passive character that makes no decision of his own. Donizetti, however, wrote for him some gorgeous music; his Act III dungeon aria was the most popular part of the opera in the nineteenth century. Our Devereux, Celso Albelo, has been one of the foremost bel canto tenors for the last decade. He has the proper Italianate quality in generous degree, showing a remarkable palette of colours as well as a commendable technique. Though its tessitura is pretty high and insists on the passaggio, the extension of this role is not prodigious, but Albelo, who is perhaps best known as Arnold in Guillaume Tell and particularly Arturo in I puritani, managed to interpolate a D 5 at the end of his Act III cabaletta (some measures earlier, a B 4 natural was too vehement and ended up being sharp). Although he studied with Bergonzi, his model is undoubtedly his fellow Canarian Alfredo Kraus: he has adopted his very forward position and unfortunately also his mannerism to start almost every phrase with a nasal consonant as if to help himself bring the sound into the “maschera”. Sometimes this “Krauseating” actually hinders him somewhat, because Albelo’s basic sound is rounder and warmer than Kraus’, and he shows it when he opens up the sound on the notes between the passaggio and a high C. Fortunately, he seems to have absorbed also Kraus’ textbook breathing, that allowed him stunts like singing the first verses of “Bagnato il cor di lagrime” in one single breath, and in a suave mezzavoce.
I must confess I feared the worst when the scheduled Gabriele Viviani cancelled at the very last moment to be replaced by Paolo Gavanelli as Nottingham. I had last heard the veteran baritone in a run of Rigolettos at the Met in 2006 and found his voice beaten-up, worn and with a very compromised top. What I found this time was a rejuvenated singer; I don’t know what happened, whether rest or more technical studies did it the job. There were still some problems : the notes immediately preceding the passaggio were open, a sign that he still struggles with that crucial part of the voice, while the passaggio itself was nicely and tastefully covered, and the top turned out secure and powerful. Nottingham is a role, that like all the ones created for Paul Barroilhet (Eustachio in L’assedio di Calais, Alphonse IX in La Favorite and Camoëns in Dom Sébastien), looks back at the basso cantante roots of this vocal register, while other roles from the same period written for Giorgio Ronconi (Nello in Pia de’ Tolomei, Corrado in Maria de Rudenz and especially Chevreuse in Maria di Rohan a few years later) are already full-fledged, Verdian, baritones. This means that Nottingham does not elicit the extreme top very often: his Act One cavatina and cabaletta are very central, while the tessitura rises in conjunction with his wrath in the Act II trio and the Act III duet with his wife. Although catapulted on stage with little to no rehearsal time, Gavanelli was musically precise, even highlighting some details I have rarely heard from others such as the dotted notes of “su lui non piombi un fulmine, accompanied by a similarly vivid orchestra.
Chiara Amarù (Sara) is a young mezzo who has been making a name for herself as a Rossini specialist particularly in demand as “La cenerentola”. Her timbre is basically that of a lyric soprano, pleasant, well-produced, but the darker hues and the velvety caress of a true mezzo are latent. The descents into the chest register sounded pushed and artificially inflated, while her top was easier and freer. This was one of her first forays in a more dramatic repertoire, which found her wanting in dramatic thrust and assertive accents, particularly in the high-octane duet with her husband, all based on an unyielding, expressive recitative.
Gabriele Sagona (Raleigh) and Davide Giangregorio (un paggio/un familiare) were correct, while the reason Antonio Corianò’s full lyric primo tenore timbre (here appreciated as Lord Cecil) keeps being confined to supporting roles is one of the many mysteries of the opera world.
The Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino was magnificent (and their music at the beginning of Act III is not exactly a bed of roses), as well as the Orchestra, despite a small “incident” in the brass section in the initial measures of the overtures, which was otherwise conducted by Paolo Arrivabene with crispness and rhythmic buoyancy without making it a sort of pre-Offenbachian piece, something I have heard from other conductors. The Italian Maestro fully realizes that this is an opera that develops by clashes, and thus he highlights the ensemble pieces, consequently giving unity to the performance. His reading of the score is energetically tightly paced and impulsively pressing and compelling, without forsaking all the nuances required and the “tinta” of the milieu; it is characterized by elastic breathing, expansions and all projected towards the orchestral singing, which is boosted in its capacity of structural and dramatic support.
Now my question is, why does the Opera di Firenze keep offering these Donizetti/Devia alliances in concert while spending profusely on Wagner, Gluck or Prokofiev?
(Photos: via the Opera di Firenze website)