In Review > North America

Roberto Devereux

TORONTO
Canadian Opera Company
4/25/14

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Leonardo Capalbo as Roberto Devereux and Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta in Stephen Lawless's production of Donizetti's opera at Canadian Opera Company
© Michael Cooper/Canadian Opera Company
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Radvanovsky as Elisabetta
© Michael Cooper/Canadian Opera Company
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Allyson McHardy as Sara and Russell Braun as the Duke of Nottingham
© Michael Cooper/Canadian Opera Company

Musically, Canadian Opera Company's first-ever production of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux was an enormous success. Toronto audiences had already seen the Maria Stuarda portion of director Stephen Lawless's "Tudor Trilogy" production in 2010, but that did not prepare them for the peculiarities of the Lawless staging of Devereux, which was first mounted at Dallas Opera in 2009. Nevertheless, the singing on April 25 was some of the most glorious heard at the COC this season and will long remain in the memory of Toronto operagoers.

As in Lawless's Maria Stuarda, all the action took place on a stage inside designer Benoit Dugardyn's set — its look suggested by Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, with a semicircle of two wooden galleries overlooking the central playing area. Unlike Maria Stuarda, Lawless gave the Devereux action a frame that was both unnecessary and intrusive. During the overture, an aged, haggard Elisabetta tottered into what seemed to be her own version of Madame Tussaud's Museum in Richmond Palace. There she admired waxwork figures of her father, Henry VIII, her mother, Anne Boleyn, and a figure of herself as a girl, each encased in a large vitrine. Soon what seemed like a child's history of the Elizabethan Age ensued, with an impish Shakespeare directing Elisabetta as Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and with Elisabetta later destroying the entire Spanish Armada with a single pistol shot. Why emphasize the historical background to an opera whose libretto is mostly fiction? 

This nonsense unforgivably returned in Act III, while Elisabetta sang "Quel sangue versato al ciel," one of the most difficult arias in the Donizetti canon. To signify that Devereux is the last of a "trilogy," Lawless rolled in the waxworks again, this time of the operas' three victims — Mary Stuart, Anne Boleyn and Devereux. When they disappeared, an empty fourth vitrine rolled in, forcing Elisabetta to sing the conclusion of the aria while opening its door and shutting herself in as a display just after her final note.

Fortunately, the COC Devereux was anchored by four extraordinary performances. Sondra Radvanovsky, in her role debut as Elisabetta, was simply spectacular. Last seen at COC as Aida, she astonished everyone by her seemingly effortless move into the bel canto repertoire. She retained the same richness of voice, but the increased agility in the runs and leaps Donizetti demands seemed to give new freedom to her natural expressivity. Her high notes, whether beautifully floated or attacked full-on, were stunning. Her detailed characterization of Elisabetta — capturing the aging queen's pride, vanity and obsessive love, as well as the depth of her jealousy and despair — was absolutely riveting. Radvanovsky won such applause for "Ah! ritorna qual ti spero" in Act I that she stopped the show, causing conductor Corrado Rovaris to put down his baton until the clapping subsided. 

Radvanovsky's Devereux for opening night and the following two performances was Leonardo Capalbo. His singing was as muscular, well honed and agile as his physique. His unusual voice had the dark, velvety timbre of a baritone even in his highest notes. Though Lawless hampered Capalbo's acting by having him pose rather too much with hand on hilt, the tenor always emanated an intensity that commanded the stage. He received the greatest acclaim for his prison scene, sung with gorgeous legato and undeniable emotion. 

As Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy sang her aria "All'afflitto è dolce il pianto" so beautifully that the applause nearly brought the opera to a halt as soon as it began. McHardy never lost the golden creaminess of her tone: even the most rapid passages and the depth of her characterization lent variety to a figure who is in a perpetual state of anxiety throughout the action. 

Baritone Russell Braun is such a fine actor that he managed to establish the Duke of Nottingham as an emotional tinderbox beneath his initially innocuous exchanges with Sara and his fervent defense of Devereux. It was therefore no surprise, when Nottingham found the scarf Sara had embroidered for Devereux, that his stunned reaction should turn into the unstoppable rage that was so frightening in his Act III scene with Sara. Though he was able to chill the natural warmth of his voice, Braun added a plaintive note to Nottingham's fiercest scenes with Sara and Devereux that expressed the depth of suffering beneath his anger.

Rovaris's conducting is notable for his well-judged tempos, the precision of his modulations between them, and the inexorable forward momentum of his pacing. At the curtain call, each of the principals had the expected single entrance, the house erupting in wild bravas when Radvanovsky appeared. The audience called the collected cast and conductor forward at least five times, before Braun on one side and Rovaris on the other pushed Radvanovsky forward to take another solo bow, at which all those onstage joined in with the tumultuous applause the audience so justly accorded her. spacer 

CHRISTOPHER HOILE

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