Donizetti completed one more French grand opera, Dom
SÈbastien, before syphilitic madness ended one of the busiest of all
composing careers at the age of 48. Maria was a success but not an
enduring hit—the opera suffers from plot confusion, too many offstage
events and far too many incriminating letters and devious proclamations (I lost
count). Composed as a soprano vehicle, it was long kept alive by Titta Ruffo,
who enjoyed the emotional range of the baritone’s part. Maria
has plenty of Donizetti’s gracious melodies and the more forceful
integration of musical number and dramatic form that make his later works so
fascinating, so clearly foreshadowing his young friend Verdi, who learned a
great deal from them, but its elaborate intrigues do not draw us in.
In history, Marie de Rohan was the notorious Duchesse de Chevreuse, an
indefatigable troublemaker at the court of Louis XIII. In the opera, however,
she is an anguished heroine, torn between love and duty and … more love.
It’s not her fault that every man in the cast, including the one played
by a woman, is crazy about her and that she can only be married to one of them
at a time. (She could, of course, be the lover of more than one, and in real
life, she was—but stage morals had to be stricter than life: “Una
la volta, per carit‡!”) “You will live in infamy,” snarls her
vengeful husband (that baritone), having just disposed of her lover (the
tenor), as the final curtain falls. And so she did. Her reputation lingered
like the scandals of bygone movie stars: everyone remembered that woman,
but—what exactly did she do?
In an earlier day, Donizetti would have ended the piece with a strident
cabaletta for the prima donna protesting her unjust fate (as he had ended
Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia and Roberto Devereux),
and he did indeed write such a piece—but a new, tighter dramatic spirit
was in the air, and he cut the number out. (It exists, though, and was
performed at Caramoor in a concert of omitted music from other editions of the
score before the main event. This is the sort of addendum that makes a Will
Crutchfield concert opera such a delight for the bel canto enthusiast.) The
opera now ends with that baritone snarl and an orchestral crash, leaving us
(perhaps) stunned by Maria’s wordless anguish—the way Verdi and
Puccini, afterwards, would stun audiences at the final curtain with a single
cry. This is abrupt and thrilling—but I’d have liked to hear that
cabaletta. Donizetti perceived that music-drama was changing, but Maria di
Rohan is not Traviata or Tosca—its stately sort of
drama seems to demand that full final statement.
Not that the prima donna’s role seemed abbreviated—she must lie
to her lover, lie to her husband, plead (offstage) to saturnine Cardinal
Richelieu for the lives of both, agonize over her reputation and her bad
decisions, sing duets and suffer remorse, all in flowing despair or glittering
excitement. Maria is a hefty soprano workout, and the only other woman
in the cast is the trouser role of Gondi, who makes scandalous insinuations
about Maria after she rejects him—and Gondi is soon disposed of.
Basically, Maria, her husband Chevreuse, and her confused truelove, Chalais,
are the only characters—aside from the cardinal, the king, the queen and
Chalais’s dying mother, who remain offstage. The chorus part is brief.
This is a chamber drama with grand opera forces.
One of the draws of the Caramoor performance was an exciting young soprano
from the Crutchfield stable, but she withdrew due to illness three days before
the performance. Maestro Crutchfield—like anyone else in the
one-performance concert opera business—keeps a clutch of possible
replacements on hand anticipating just this sort of fiasco, and his Caramoor
Bel Canto Young Artists again proved its usefulness when Jennifer Rowley took
on the arduous title role at short notice.
Rowley has a beautiful voice of considerable size, many attractive colors
and remarkable evenness over a couple of octaves up to a spectacular D-flat.
Her vibrato seems more suited to Germanic than bel canto roles (she sang
Konstanze in Newark), but it disappears when long CaballÈ-style legatos are
called for. Her trill is imprecise but not unpleasing, her ornaments stylish,
and she was off-book three days after learning she would be going on. She
earned a standing ovation and got it.
Luciano Botelho, a Brazilian tenor, sang her lover, Chalais. His voice is
sweet and attractive if a little light for the demands of so intense a
part—he is more a Nemorino or Ramiro (in Cenerentola) than a
Chalais. He seemed at times to be gasping between lines of his opening aria,
but his command of line gave great pleasure, and in his passionate final scenes
he showed more strength.
Scott Bearden sang the Duc de Chevreuse, the sort of baritone who risks his
life to save his tenor best friend—only to discover the fellow is his
wife’s lover. He acted this well, remembering to limp when he’d
been wounded in an offstage duel, and sang it in a curious way—for his
opening aria went rather higher than baritones usually go (higher by some steps
than the Ricordi score of the opera, published twenty years after the premier,
demands), and though he managed this tessitura admirably, the quality of these
notes had neither tenor excitement nor baritone heft. Was this an alternate
version of the autograph? (Crutchfield had undoubtedly examined all
discoverable versions of the score—he and Philip Gossett discussed their
choices at a lecture in the afternoon.) If so, what sort of voice does Bearden
have for the rest of the repertory—a low tenor or a high baritone? In
later scenes, his voice seemed to possess more juice at the normal baritone
range, and when he finally lost his noble temper—another of those
letters!—he growled with far more comfort.
Vanessa Cariddi took the trouser role of Maria’s accuser, Gondi, with
the right travesty swagger and a pleasing style. The smaller male roles were
all handled rewardingly.
Crutchfield’s conducting of these bel canto operas is always
subservient to the ease of the singers, sometimes to the detriment of
theatricality. With a prima donna understudy, no doubt he was right to do this,
but the dramatic arc of the piece as presented lacked excitement. It was
pleasant to encounter this tuneful rarity, but nothing about the evening of
fine singing proclaimed the opera an overlooked masterpiece.
image_description=Jennifer Rowley as Maria di Rohan [Photo by Gabe Palacio]
product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Maria di Rohan
product_by=Maria di Rohan: Jennifer Rowley; Chalais: Luciano Botelho; Chevreuse: Scott Bearden; Armando di Gondi: Vanessa Cariddi. Orchestra of St. Luke’s, conducted by Will Crutchfield. At the Caramoor Festival, Katonah, NY. July 24
product_id=Above: Jennifer Rowley as Maria di Rohan [Photo by Gabe Palacio]