Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: The last performance of LA Opera’s “Roberto Devereux” on March 14th has been canceled.
Most thrilling operas have, by their very nature, a tragic conflict that bursts at the seams of the premise, as the performers on stage vocalize their struggles passionately, striving to resolve their predicament en route to an outcome that usually isn’t as joyful as most Hollywood endings.
But this is all for the best, such as in LA Opera’s second installment of the year, as audiences are kept on the edge of their seats throughout the romantic-royal quagmire of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux,” now playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through March 14th.
It’s all the more impressive of an achievement for the LA Opera given that the production’s three slated stars, British soprano Alice Coote (Sara, Duchess of Nottingham), Plácido Domingo (Duke of Nottingham) and most recently Davinia Rodríguez (Queen Elizabeth I), were replaced for very different reasons – one for family matters, the second due to stepping down in response to sexual harassment allegations, and the last one because of an unforeseen illness.
Not to mention, the opera’s premise is fascinating on its own. While it would be easy to call it a love triangle, the conflict in “Roberto Devereux” is more fittingly a love rectangle (or square, depending on which four-sided shape you prefer). The Canadian Opera Production written by Salvadore Cammarano, which saw its initial premiere in 1837, is very loosely based on the real-life events surrounding Queen Elizabeth I amid the Tudor period, when she was hopelessly in love with Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex.
In fact, “Roberto Devereux” completes Donizetti’s famous “Tudor Trilogy,” also made up of “Anna Bolena” (based on King Henry VIII’s second wife) and “Maria Stuarda” (based on Mary, Queen of Scots). These trio of women who meet unhappy fates are collectively known as “Donizetti’s Three Queens,” which have only recently picked up a resurgence at opera houses since the late 20th century.
As conveyed in this Eun Sun Kim-conducted (Louis Lohraseb will conduct on March 14th) and Stephen Lawless-directed Italian opera, Devereux and Elizabeth’s bond was well-known enough and coveted to the point that when Elizabeth asked Devereux to lead a military campaign against Ireland, the latter was charged with treason for signing a peace treaty simply because he did it without any approval. Certainly, peace should always be the goal, but envy against Devereux drove the Parliament of England, compromised of persuasive luminaries like Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Cecil, to weigh in on and push for a death penalty.
Elizabeth, who has given Devereux a special ring tantamount to a Get out of Jail Free card, which if returned to her would signify a renewed devotion to the Queen and liberation from any precarious circumstance, emphasizes how much she wants Devereux to live through this. However, he’s been emotionally unfaithful to Elizabeth with her best friend Sara, a.k.a. the Duchess of Nottingham, who is married to the Duke of Nottingham — Devereux’s closet pal. As one can imagine, this sticky situation and a series of revelations sparks anger, vindictiveness, sadness, regret, and a whole host of other heightened emotions right up until the unforgettable end.
This historical drama lives and breathes through not only its accomplished, albeit quickly cobbled together proficient cast, but thanks to a creative team that thoroughly understands the best way to deliver the bel canto “Roberto Devereux” to an audience. The gorgeous wood set by Benoit Dugardyn, a replica of the Shakespearean Globe Theatre in London, gives the large stakes an equally splendid setting. The unfurled English Old World map holds attendees’ attention like they’re in a classroom where such important figures come alive, and the lovely gowns by costume designer Ingeborg Bernerth, including a billowing burgundy ensemble for Elizabeth, and a tranquilly blue dress for Sara, capture the grandiosity of the three-act occasion.
The Seoul-born Kim, who is a prodigy in her own right as the recently appointed music director of the San Francisco Opera, brings a modern sensibility as a conductor to this production, as she is not so overly preoccupied with adhering to a rigorous order, but enabling her cast to find their own motivations on stage, through the recitatives, cavatinas, cabalettas, cadenzas, and so on, as one breathtaking piece after another tells its own individual and unique story. Kim’s approach is an extension of Lawless’ directorial spirit which continues to shine through exultantly despite the tragedy of the narrative proceedings.
Taking the place of Rodríguez on exceedingly short notice is American soprano Angela Meade, whose classic vocals charge with trills, a coloratura-ripened vigor and an affecting vehemence as in when her character longs for Robert in the heart-stricken “Vivi ingrato, a lei d’accanto” (“Live, ungrateful man, at her side”). This number and the crushing fragility in “Quel sangue versato” (“That spilled blood / rises to heaven”) feel like an impressive pivot by the versatile Meade who just earlier sings the comparatively sanguine proclamation of love for Robert in “L’amor suo mi fe’ beata” (”His love was a blessing to me”).
Elizabeth’s changing feelings and transformation, from adoration to vengeance and then ruefulness, is a wonder to behold and also delineates how the self-assurance and control that Elizabeth wields begins to dramatically wilt. It’s amazing to see Meade curl her vocal fist into an authoritative hammer that, on command, suitably softens and opens to reveal a beautifully tragic dove.
On opening night (Saturday, February 22nd), Meade, who is set to again reprise Elizabeth in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Roberto Devereux” in September, didn’t quite know the blocking yet for this version, but was assisted by choreographer Nicola Bowie who acted as the pantomiming physical stand-in, in full regalia and all, while Meade, standing to the side, complemented Bowie’s graceful movements with an equally breathtaking voice to match. That being said, only five days later, for the second performance on Thursday, February 27th, Meade was not only ready to assume all responsibilities, but she carried them out like a seasoned and consummate professional.
In addition, the established and still underrated Ramón Vargas, who is clad in a defiant leather jacket and pants, is spectacular in lending his legato tenorial spirit to the besieged title character. As Robert, he convincingly conveys his passion, particularly for Sara, like in the love-is-sacrifice duet, “Dacchè tornasti, ahi, misera!” (“Since you returned, ah miserable me!”). In Act III’s “Come uno spirto angelico…Bagnato il sen di lagrime” (“Like an angelic spirit…With my breast bathed in tears”), Vargas is so heartbreaking that he elicits goosebumps. Robert is the ultimate lover in the realm of high society, but he also retains a cool mysteriousness that never fades completely to black – a consequence of Vargas’ lively interpretation.
Replacing Coote is Ashley Dixon (and Raehann Bryce-Davis from March 8th through the 14th). The mezzo-soprano brings an exquisite genuineness to Sara, who finds herself miserably caught between allegiances – to her best friend Elizabeth, to her husband the Duke, and to her amore Robert. Sara, in part because of the appropriate frailty with which Dixon inhabits her persona, remains likable, inured to any judgment. With her melodious and precise voice, Dixon navigates her character’s dilemmas with sure-fire finesse.
Furthermore, more than holding his own is Hawaii native and baritone Quinn Kelsey, who portrays the once loyal friend and then adversarial Duke of Nottingham (Kihun Yoon will play the Duke on March 14th). Kelsey, who thunders during his duet of “Non sai che un nume vindice” (“Don’t you know that betrayed husbands”) with Dixon’s Sara, thrillingly and viscerally communicates the rage-fueling betrayal that he feels upon intercepting his onstage wife’s letter and the ring that can save Robert’s life. Filling Domingo’s shoes seems like it would be an impossible task, but Kelsey has such a fresh and formidable presence about him, along with a sturdy and smooth timbre, that he deservedly wins over the audience by curtain call.
Rounding out the main cast are two Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artists in Anthony Ciaramitaro as Lord Cecil and Michael J. Hawk – a recurring performer in the last few LA Opera productions – as Sir Walter Raleigh. Both men rise to the cachet of the renowned historical figures whom they represent. Last, but not least, is the always dependable maestro in Grant Gershon. He makes harmonious champions out of his chorus, who have a sizable impact as they gloweringly preside over Robert’s impending execution.
Overall, with a series of unexpected casting substitutions that had to be made, LA Opera’s production of “Roberto Devereux” had everything working against it. But via the leadership and prowess of Meade, who confidently and intensely assumes Queen Elizabeth’s grand legacy, this opera has become a triumph. Granted, Meade has played Elizabeth before (the photos are from her performance at the Dallas Opera in ’09), but it doesn’t make her accomplishment here any less monumental. With an enthralling drama both behind the scenes and on display at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the gripping “Roberto Devereux” is a winner thanks to a Hail Mary, wherein serendipity, a well-executed plan, and undeniable skill have all come into play.
For more information about “Roberto Devereux” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, please visit: