February 25, 2020
“The only thing constant is change,” or so Heraclitus wrote lo these many years ago. And to say that there were changes afoot in Los Angeles Opera’s premiere of the Gaetano Donizetti quasi-rarity, Roberto Devereux, which opened at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday and runs for five more performances, would be somewhat of an understatement.
Not only had superstar Plácido Domingo been slated to sing the role of Devereux’s adversary, the Duke of Nottingham (and for those living under a boulder, Domingo stepped down from running LA Opera last October, having been accused of sexual harassment), but the Spanish soprano, Davinia Rodriguez, took ill at the last minute, with American soprano Angela Meade stepping in to sing the meaty and mighty personage of Queen Elizabeth I.
And step in Meade did, but not as an ambulatory Queen. Instead, the silver-throated songbird was positioned at the side of the stage — on book — and in near darkness (this writer overheard a disgruntled operagoer decrying the lack of illumination on the wondrous-voiced Meade), while Nicola Bowie, choreographer of the Stephen Lawless-directed production that comes to L.A. from a 2014 Canadian creation, moved about onstage like a female Marcel Marceau, her miming downright distracting and, well, weird. That Bowie was also the production’s choreographer was not apparent in her moves, but with the dances she did stage, happily, less obtrusive.
That said, this work, which was written in 1837 and does not rigorously adhere to Elizabethan history, fell out of favor for more than a century, only to make a thrilling comeback in the 1970s when bel canto’s serious revival had divas of all stripes, including Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, and Monserrat Caballé, doing the composer proud in a role that is decidedly a vocal challenge. (On a side note, cinematic and theatrical productions have, throughout the years, been a magnet for myriad actors, with Sarah Bernhardt, Bette Davis, and Cate Blanchett bringing wigs, chalky white make-up, and stubborn nobility to their lofty interpretations.)
And, as most operas go, Devereux abounds with melodramatic moments, notably death, an ill-fated love triangle, and an embroidered scarf, all grist for an opera-lover’s mill. This staging also showcased a starry-voiced tenor, Ramón Vargas, as the titular courtier. Offering ardor and dulcet tones, Vargas never let his professionalism flag, even in one unfortunate circumstance where he was made to sing a duet with Meade from the opposite side of the stage.
As for plot, the nutshell summary is as follows: Devereux, Earl of Essex, is Elizabeth’s lover, but he’d also hooked up with Sara, the queen’s best friend, sung admirably by mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon sporting, however, an unfortunate dress recalling a Disney princess (the costumes, generally quite splendid — hoops, ruffed collars, corseted waists and the Queen’s fiery red wig, uncredited — were by Ingeborg Bernerth, in her LAO debut). Sara also happens to be married to the Duke of Nottingham, with Quinn Kelsey, also in his LAO debut, conquering the wronged husband role in a resonant baritone and with a nastiness even Iago might have envied.
No good can possibly come of this, especially since Essex has been seeing Sara while depending on the Queen’s favor to escape a charge of treason leveled at him in Parliament, thus betraying his ally, Nottingham. While the queen might have pardoned Devereux by dint of receiving a ring that she had given to her paramour, he, in turn, had given it to Sara, who is prevented by Nottingham from returning said bauble. And so the ill-fated Earl is sentenced to a beheading. (Perhaps if they’d had Amazon Prime ...)
In a possible nod to Donizetti’s overture quote of “God Save the Queen,” the opera opened with a fantasy pantomime taking place amid Benoît Dugardyn’s admirable scenic design. A rendering of Shakespeare’s Old Globe, replete with tiered theater stalls and movable staircases, the set, in addition to Christopher Akerlind’s sumptuous lighting — enhanced the proceedings. Indeed, Shakespeare, himself, appeared in a donkey head as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the Queen’s handmaidens acting as fairies.
Making her LAO debut, Eun Sun Kim, who is the music director designate of San Francisco Opera, conducted with authority and ebullience, coaxing a regal sound from the pit, while the challenges of singing with and to the static presence of Meade nevertheless remained throughout the evening. Meade, who won both the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012 Beverly Sills Artist Award and the 2011 Richard Tucker Award, has been hailed by The New York Times for her “technical agility and lyrical refinement” — and was last seen in LAO’s 2015 staging of Norma — has a huge, shimmering sound, and will continue as Elizabeth for the opera’s run, which will have several cast and conductor changes. Hopefully, the soprano will be traversing the stage as well as the soaring score in the coming weeks.
The chorus, under Grant Gershon’s always stellar direction, once again gave heft and dynamism to the production, with Anthony Ciaramitaro’s Lord Cecil, Michael J. Hawk’s Sir Walter Raleigh, Steve Pence’s Page and Abdiel Gonzalez’s Servant of Nottingham rounding out the cast on this somewhat awkward opening night.
Donizetti, who composed more than 70 operas, including two other portraits of Tudor queens — Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda — and died at the young age of 50, also encountered tragedy of operatic proportions in his own life, losing his wife at the time of the Devereux premiere. Let’s hope, then, that this particular Devereux, a jewel in the bel-canto canon, can be seen and heard in all of the majesty, no pun intended, it so richly deserves.