Roberto Devereux, WNO

Alessandro Talevi and conductor Daniele
were back at the helm to bring the trio of operas to a thrilling
conclusion. We saw the final performance at the Wales Millennium Centre on 6
October 2013, before the company takes the productions on tour. Leonardo
Capalbo sang the title role, with Leah-Marian Jones as Sara, Alexandra
Deshorties as Elisabetta, David Kempster as Nottingham, Geraint Dodd as Cecil,
William Robert Allenby as Raleigh, Stephen Wells as a servant and George
Newton-Fitzgeral as a page.

Roberto Devereux was written in 1837 and, unlike Maria
, achieved great success in Donizetti’s lifetime. Like many of
Donizetti’s late opera, the plot involves a love triangle and a woman wrongly
suspected, but woven into this is the extremely strong character of Elisabetta.
Though Roberto is in love with Sara and act one concludes with their duet, it
is Elisabetta who is the prima donna, with an entrance aria at the prime point
in act one and with the cavatina and caballetta which concludes the opera.

After brilliant and highly coloured account of the overture (written for the
Paris performances of the opera in 1841, and anachronistically quoting God
save the Queen
), the curtain went up on Madeleine Boyd’s now familiar
set, but with a translucent glass wall at the back. During the opening chorus,
whilst the women of the chorus toyed with a huge spider in a terrarium, we
could see people pressing against the glass outside. The idea of the dangerous
spider and of the constant over-sight from others were two constant themes
running through Talevi’s production. The sense that Elisabetta was a
dangerous creature in confinement, approachable but always capable of erupting,
and the sense that every action was done in the public glare.

Whilst I saw Leah-Marian Jones as one of the sisters in Rossini’s La
at Covent Garden, I have not been aware of her performing many
significant other bel canto roles. Her account of Sara’s opening aria showed
that she was able to bring a warm strength and flexibility to the role and
engendered immense sympathy for Sara.

Alexandra Deshorties made her first appearance as Elisabetta, clearly
channelling Vivienne Westwood. The combination of her heels and red wig made
much of Deshorties height, giving her a commanding appearance. She was wearing
a red frock with lace collar both of which made clear reference to the dress
that Anna Bolena wore at the end of the opera, but over a black horse-hair
skirt related the costume of Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda. From the
word go, it was clear that Deshorties was commanding physically, dramatically
and vocally. She created a highly fascinating and imperious character.
Deshorties voice is characterful, though not always highly beautiful, but she
used it with skill and had clear facility in the roulades. Her performance
might not have been conventionally beautiful, but it was truly mesmerising.
Deshorties was Elizabeth incarnate.

Leonardo Capalbo appeared looking every inch the disreputable but sexy
Roberto, dressed completely in leather; a look that Capalbo, a relatively
slight figure, was able to bring off. Capalbo swaggered and smouldered
admirably. He has quite a dark voice, and his repertoire includes quite a
number of Verdi roles. For the first two acts of the opera we heard him only in
relation to other singers, Donizetti wrote only a single aria for Roberto, in
act three. Though Capalbo smouldered and swaggered, he did so within the
reasonable bounds of the production and seems to be a performer who knows when
not to move. His vocal performance displayed a similar tact, making a fine foil
for both Deshorties and Jones in their duets.

The other performer to get an aria in act one, was David Kempster as
Nottingham (Sara’s husband), who gave a superb account of Nottingham’s aria
proclaiming his fidelity and support of Roberto (a man we know is in love with
his wife). Kempster’s bluff commitment and fine flexibility helped bring out
the irony of the aria.

Act one ends with an extended scene for Sara and Roberto as they admit their
love is doomed, and seal things by exchanging tokens. Jones and Capalbo brought
a nice intensity to this scene, and also a sense of melancholy as the doomed
lovers admitted this was the end. Talevi’s direction was very sensitive here,
knowing when to leave well alone and allow the performers to apparently do
nothing. The result was magical.

After the interval, in act two, the storm breaks as Elisabetta discovers
that Roberto has another lover, thanks to the scarf that Sara has given him.
The opening chorus, was counterpointed with the striking image of Elisabetta
(in silhouette through the glass) being dressed and the pacing anxiously. The
scene with Deshorties, Kempster and Geraint Dodd’s Cecil was strong but for
the concluding ensemble (with chorus) Talevi and Boyd brought off a visual
coup. The image of Elisabetta as spider was made manifest, with Deshorties at
the centre of a huge mechanical spider with legs moved by her ladies, attacking
a prone Capalbo with the other performers scurrying for cover. Donizetti’s
furious ensemble here is terrific and Talevi articulated it in physical terms
with something akin to brilliance. When I first saw the mechanical spider I
confess that I had my doubts, but in the context of the gradual dramatic
build-up around Elisabetta’s power and control of her court, it provided a
fascinating focus for Donizetti’s ensemble.

For Kempster’s scene with Jones, when Nottingham confronts his wife with
the proof of her ‘infidelity’, we were back to ppwerful physical
inter-action. Both Kempster and Jones brought a great intensity to the duet,
with Kempster’s violence verging on the disturbing, but all the time singing
within the confines of Donizetti’s music. A remarkable dramatic achievement.

Roberto’s prison scene finally gave Capalbo his solo aria – a finely
melancholy aria with a caballetta of dark intensity and brilliance. His
performance was technically adept, but this was not simply a show piece and
Capalbo admirably kept his performance within the confines of the dramatic
scheme giving a remarkably subtle and sensitively moving performance. Scattered
around the edges of Capalbo’s prison were skulls of former prisoners,
testimony to the deadly nature of the spider.

The final scene is essentially just an aria and cabaletta for Elisabetta,
but written into an extended scene of extraordinary power. Deshorties opened
the scene disconsolately hunched on her mechanical spider, now quiescent.
Without her red wig and made up to look gaunt, Deshorties was a shadow of the
Elisabetta of act one and created a remarkable image of an ageing woman at a
loss. With the entrance of Jones’s Sara, too late to save Roberto, we lost
the spider and the rear wall disappeared to reveal a row of poles with more
heads on them, testament to the spider’s power. Deshorties gave the final
cabaletta a performance of striking intensity, this was technically strong but
not showy, all was in service to the drama. At the end she made her exit,
wearing that red dress, into the void at the back of the stage. A gesture which
echoed the end of Anna Bolena but whereas in that opera it was a
symbol of power and defiance, here it was a gesture of defeat.

As in Anna Bolena, conductor Daniele Rustioni combined a feel for
Donizetti’s rhythms and vocal lines with an intensity of rhythm, without ever
making the opera feel driven. What it did feel was powerful and alive. From the
intensity of the pairs of repeated notes in the overture, you knew that you
were in for a special performance, and we were. The orchestra were on thrilling
form and rightly got a strong ovation. I certainly hope to hear Rustioni again
in this repertoire soon.

All three operas in this trilogy, Anna Bolena, Maria
and Roberto Devereux are about power and its exercise.
But this power is combined with a love triangle, particularly with the theme of
the guilty wife which seemed to interest Donizetti. Anna Bolena is
perhaps the most conventional, with the most straightforward arc of the story.
In both Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux Donizetti uses the
strength of the character of Elizabeth to experiment with how to balance an
opera with two leading ladies.

The strength of this trilogy was the way that Talevi and Boyd’s
iconography provided a platform to make the exercise of power understandable
and to create a credible dramatic structure in which to explore the very human
emotions. By the time we came to the third opera, the linking sense of Boyd’s
designs came through admirably and you felt the three as a very satisfying
whole. Throughout all three operas, Matthew Haskins’ lighting was striking
and evocative, without ever calling too much attention to itself. With such a
very dark set, lighting was paramount and the look of the entire trilogy was a
testament to three people, Talevi, Boyd and Haskins.

This was a huge undertaking for WNO, requiring the mounting of three bel
canto operas in parallel, with six leading ladies and three tenors capable of
doing justice to Donizetti’s music. They also found a remarkable set of
varied and highly characterful singers, each of whom brought a very particular
quality to their performance. When Talevi and conductor Rustioni were in
charge, we got a profoundly satisfying musical dramatic whole. Talevi showed
himself a highly musical director, producing dramatic work which went with the
grain of Donizetti’s music. In this he was aided and abetted by the
remarkable performances which Rustioni drew out of the orchestra. Time and
again we marvelled at how the strength of the staging brought out the daring
and modernity of Donizetti’s music.

Unfortunately, logistics meant that in the middle opera, the production and
conducting were deputed to Rudolf Frey and Graeme Jenkins and they do not seem
to have been able to inspire the same degree of focussed intensity in their
performers. I kept thinking that, if the money could be found, WNO ought to
invite Talevi and Rustioni back to re-stage Maria Stuarda.

But whatever individual quibble I have, this was a stupendous three days
and, judging by the audience reaction after Roberto Devereux, everyone
at the Wales Millennium Centre agreed with me.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Sara: Leah-Marian Jones, Elizabetta: Alexandra Deshories, Cecil:
Geraint Dodd, Page: George-Newton-Fitzgerald, Raleigh: William Robert Allenby,
Roberto Devereux: Leonardo Capalbo, Nottingham: David Kempster, Servant:
Stephen Wells. Alessandro Talevi: Director, Madeleine Boyd: Designer, Matthew
Haskins: Lighting. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, 6 October

image_description=Alexandra Deshorties as Elizabeth and Leonardo Capalbo as Robert [Photo by Robert Workman]
product_title=Roberto Devereux, WNO
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Alexandra Deshorties as Elizabeth and Leonardo Capalbo as Robert [Photo by Robert Workman]