A compelling Robert Devereux from Chelsea Opera Group at Cadogan Hall

In June 2019, the Australian soprano Helena Dix stepped into the royal shoes of Elizabeth I, replacing soprano Ina Schlingensiepen at the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe in the third and final opera of Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy, and sending the Mexican tenor Eleazar Rodríguez’s ill-fated Roberto Devereux to his execution.  Now Rodríguez has returned the favour, deputising for tenor Chris Turner (who sad had to withdraw following a family bereavement) as the treacherous but tragic Earl of Essex alongside Dix’s Queen in Chelsea Opera Group’s superb concert performance of Roberto Devereux at Cadogan Hall.

It was splendid to see, and hear, COG back on the Cadogan Hall stage.  This performance had originally been planned for June 2020 but was a casualty of pandemic restrictions. COG have not performed since their ebullient and lively account of Verdi’s first comic opera, Un giorno di regno, in October 2019.  The choral forces seemed to be a little reduced in number, but the singing was characteristically confident, with a sure sense of style and effective light and shade, and conductor Gary Matthewman drew tidy playing from the orchestra who relished the dramatic surges of Donizetti’s score.  This was a stirring and truly engaging performance, and the musicians and chorus members must surely have been inspired by the terrific team of soloists assembled to take us through the private and public torments of these troubled aristocrats from English history.

It was also a performance which reminded one of just how good Donizetti’s characterisation and pacing is in Roberto Devereux; how compelling the gradual exposure of secrets and betrayals.  The action is brilliantly compressed, the tension mounting inexorably from the arias di sortita of the opening act, which introduce us to the protagonists and their disquieting predicaments, through the tightly focused Act 2 with its portentous opening chorus in which the court comments upon Essex’s fate and intense trio-finale, culminating in Act 3 with the imprisoned Devereux’s despairing double-aria and subsequent death, and the Queen’s own physical demise and psychological unravelling.

The opera was composed in the summer of 1837 (following Anna Bolena (1830) and Maria Stuarda (1835)) at a distressing time in Donizetti’s life: cholera was sweeping through Naples and to the public suffering was added private grief when the composer’s wife, Virginia, died barely six weeks after having given birth to a child which had lived but a few hours.  It’s tempting to hear in the protagonists’ anguish something of Donizetti’s own heartbreak.

Librettist Salvatore Cammarano played a little loose with English history, comingling fact – the political ambition of the aging Queen’s favourite, his failures in Ireland and his execution for treason – and fiction, including the legend of the ‘Essex ring’ given to Devereux by Elizabeth with the promise that should he find himself in trouble during a military expedition he should send it to her, and she would protect him.  The myth goes that after his trial and sentencing he did indeed try to send Elizabeth the ring, via her lady-in-waiting the Countess of Nottingham, but the latter, whose husband was, like Cecil and Raleigh, an opponent of Essex, kept the ring and Essex was executed.  Cammarano adds a further romantic twist.  Essex has lost interest in Elizabeth and transferred his love to Sara, the wife of his friend the Duke of Nottingham, thereby betraying both queen and comrade, and it is the latter, angry and jealous, who prevents his wife giving the ring to the Queen.  At the close, the distraught monarch abdicates in favour of ‘Giacomo’ – James I, the son of Mary Queen of Scots.

When Dix sang the role of Elizabeth at Melbourne Opera, one critic was prompted to describe her soprano as ‘the most exciting voice I have heard since Joan Sutherland’ while another awarded her ‘8 stars out of 5’ – to which, after hearing her performance at Cadogan Hall, one might reply, why only 8?  This was a stunning display of dramatic bel canto singing, but one which should not surprise following as it does Dix’s Norma with Chelsea Opera Group in 2018 (in which Chris Turner was a terrific Pollione) and Cristina, Regina di Svezia at Wexford in 2013.  The opera may be titled after the treacherous Earl, but it is the Queen who dominates and Dix was imperious, using her versatile, beautiful soprano to chart the monarch’s psychological twists and turns, doubts and self-delusions, rage and sorrow.  The role was written for Giuseppina Ronzi-De Begnis (1800-1853), a soprano drammatico d’agilita, and Dix easily encompassed the wide tessitura, equally expressive at the top and when a chest voice was required.

Every vocal nuance was observed and vividly articulated.  Silken pianissimos expressed Elizabeth’s love and, at times, vulnerability; light and shade conveyed her restlessness; unleashing the full richness of her soprano, she captured the Queen’s self-consuming jealousy, bitter vengefulness, and fear of rejection.  Elizabeth was wilful, dangerous even, sneering with irony, but also a figure of pathos.  It requires considerable poise to communicate a spirit so shattered, on the cusp of breakdown.  Dix demonstrated tremendous stamina, sustaining the intensity of her characterisation and her vocal command from the first bars of her entrance aria to Elizabeth’s final cantabile and cabaletta.  Singing quietly and with delicacy, shaping the melody with sensitivity, she conveyed the Queen’s sadness in ‘Vivi ingrato’, again showing her appreciation of the way Donizetti’s subtle declamatory nuances engage the audience’s sympathy, then unleashed Elizabeth’s near-hysterical torment in ‘Quel sangue versato’, negotiating the wide leaps with pinpoint accuracy and emotive impact – reminding us perhaps, of another operatic queen, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth.

Singing largely off-score, Rodríguez captured Devereux’s aristocratic self-confidence and romantic idealism.  I’ve enjoyed the Mexican singer’s sweet-toned lyric tenor at English National Opera (in performances of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in 2015 and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in 2018) and here he displayed similar vocal flexibility and strength, conveying the Earl’s heroic pride, romantic ardour and, at the close, fearful desperation.  The melodies were tastefully shaped, and there was no strain at the top.  His duet with Catherine Carby’s Duchess of Nottingham at the end of Act 1, when the latter gives the Earl a silk scarf, woven with golden messages of love, was deeply felt, while the cantabile, a farewell to life, in the Act 3 Tower Scene was poetic and elegant, resonant with poignancy. 

Carby’s lovely warm mezzo helped to create sympathy for Sara, especially in the gentle, thoughtful romance with which she opens the opera, but she demonstrated impassioned strength too, not least in her urgent duet with her husband, where her rising lines shone with almost desperate fervour.  Baritone Julien Van Mellaerts was superb as the aggrieved Duke of Nottingham.  Always mellifluous and elegant of voice, Van Mellaerts persuasively charted Nottingham’s evolving feelings from affability and concern to pain and anger, and finally vengeful vindictiveness.  He evinced real dramatic power in Act 3.  The minor roles were well sung by tenor Steven Aviss (Lord Cecil), bass James Platt (Sir Walter Raleigh) and tenor Edward Jowle (Page and Servant) – the latter, a member of the Royal College of Music’s Opera Studio whom I look forward to hearing as Papageno in the RCM’s The Magic Flute later this month.

This was a terrific evening which everyone at Cadogan Hall, both on the stage and in the auditorium, clearly enjoyed enormously.  And, it’s good to know that it won’t be too long before we’ll next have a chance to hear Helena Dix in a UK opera house, when she sings Miss Jessel in Garsington’s revival of their 2019 production of The Turn of the Screw next summer.

Claire Seymour

Elisabetta – Helena Dix, Roberto Devereux – Eleazar Rodríguez, Duchess of Nottingham – Catherine Carby, Duke of Nottingham – Julien Van Mellaerts, Sir Gualtiero Raleigh – James Platt, Lord Cecil –Stephen Aviss, Page and Servant – Edward Jowle; Conductor – Gary Matthewman, Chelsea Opera Group Chorus and Orchestra.

Cadogan Hall, London; Sunday 31st October 2021.

ABOVE: Helena Dix