Trapped in the web of love

Which operatic character could be best described as a spider? Assume this question were asked at the next Met Opera Quiz: what would be your answer?  

Hint: a spider spins a web (of lies, of deception, whatever) and then patiently waits for her victim to fall in it, after which she mercilessly kills him and devours him. Any number of evil characters whose perverse machinations we observe during the course of a piece, and which terminates with the demise of the hero/heroine could be described that way. Iago in Otello is perhaps the most appropriate example.

When it comes to Donizetti’s “Tudor cycle,” one could possibly think of Enrico in Anna Bolena, or even, with a big stretch, of Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda. But there is no clear reason why Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux, who ends up victim of her own rage and jealousy, should be identified with a spider. Yet that’s exactly what happens in Alessandro Talevi’s production of Donizetti’s opera currently being performed at the Teatro Real in Madrid in a co-production with the Welsh National Opera.

A dark, ugly, almost damp, Court of England creates an appropriate setting for this opera where tragedy seems to be announced by the first bars, and where sad, almost desperate characters swiftly move towards their destiny, nobody getting what they want at the end. Which leaves us with the spider. In Act I, the spider lives in a tank, and is fed mice by Elisabetta—during her cabaletta no less!

In Act II the real spider is nowhere to be found, but it’s Elisabetta’s throne during the fierce finale turns into a mechanical creature with eight legs chasing the Earl of Essex around the stage, later to collapse in Act III together with the Queen.

Whatever the concept, count me among those who did not get it. Perhaps this was because the concept did not extend so far as the direction of the characters, who sang most of the time in a “stand and deliver” fashion, without any interaction with each other.

It was almost as if the director had decided that Devereux has a collection of “stock” operatic characters (the hapless hero, the sad lover, the jealous husband) not worth spending any effort on, and instead has to focus solely on Elisabetta and her inner psychological conflict. She is the only one costumed with bright colors (including orange hair in a Marge Simpson upsweep) and the only one who seems to have received detailed blocking and acting direction. And, alas, the only one with the peculiar obsession with spiders.

But let me be honest, I did not go all the way to Madrid to catch the production; rather I went to hear and see Mariella Devia in her first staged assumption of the role of the Queen. As in last year’s concert at Carnegie Hall, Devia displayed all her familiar virtues: flawless legato, elegant phrasing, immaculate coloratura, tasteful variations, ringing top notes.

If anything she was in even better voice than last year.  Perhaps because she was supported by a more sensitive conductor—the wonderful Bruno Campanella—her singing was beautiful throughout the night, not just in her two big arias but also in the duets and ensembles. The voice shows signs of age-related wear, but it’s still a formidable instrument in the hands of a consummate musician.

The final scene was spellbinding, with “Vivi ingrato” floated in perfect pianissimos, lovely filature and an intimate sadness that really made you believe you were witnessing an interior monologue by the Queen. That was followed by a chilling account of “Quel sangue versato”, which this time Devia decided not to conclude with the high D natural that shook the rafters of Carnegie Hall last year. It is a testament to her magisterial singing in the entire scene, that nobody (including myself) seem to have missed it.

The other draw to the performance was Gregory Kunde in the role of Roberto. Once a bel canto specialist, he has been recently singing heavier fare (Enée, both Otellos, Turiddu, Canio, etc). The voice is big, loud, with a secure booming top, and strong lower register. Age has left a big hole in between the two registers, which Kunde covers up as best as he can, and sometimes uses as a dramatic tool. Among all the singers, his acting was the least convincing, resorting to stock gestures and facial expressions.

Silvia Tro Santafe sang the pants off the role of Sara. I only knew of her as contralto specializing in Baroque repertory, and I wondered how she would cope with Sara’s relatively high tessitura. She sang with a hearty full tone, and with a wide uniform range all the way to a secure top. She was the pleasant surprise of the evening.

Young Italian baritone, Marco Caria did well as Nottingham, finding the right tones and accents to the different emotions of this character (from sad supportive friend, to jealous raging husband).

A journey to Florence after seeing Devia in Madrid sent me down a beautiful memory lane: last time I was there was in 2000 when I saw her as Violetta at the old Teatro Comunale, now in disuse, since the company moved to the beautiful newly constructed Parco della Musica.

The Devia connection continued with that night’s performance since I would see again the old (almost 20 years!) Graham Vick production of Lucia that she premiered here in Florence in 1996, and that I saw three years later with her in Geneva.

I was happy to be able to revisit this staging: for me it stands as the best presentation of Lucia that I have ever seen. With a very simple, almost minimalist staging, Vick recreates a mysterious Scottish atmosphere: a moor dotted with delicate purple flowers, a couple of dead trees battered by the wind, and a huge full moon hovering overhead. Before this background, simple moving panels create the various rooms where indoor action takes part, but always with a crack or a window that allows us to see and connect to the moor and the moon.

I remember well the subtle directorial touches that allowed us to witness the slow disintegration of Lucia’s psyche from the playful young girl splashing Alisa at the fountain to the demented, almost possessed murderer threatening the guests with Arturo’s sword. Many of those touches have now been lost in the revival directed by Marina Bianchi: Lucia does not grab Alisa in terror during “Regnava nel silenzio” anymore, and Lucia and Edgardo don’t toss about their Scottish tartans playfully.

Yet this remains a compelling staging, not showing its age, and indeed I would almost suggest that Peter Gelb should bring it in to replace the current inane Met production. (It may be, though, that Vick remains persona non grata at the Met after his train wreck of Trovatore a decade or so ago.

Australian soprano Jessica Pratt was a Lucia of formidable talent. She sang with assurance and almost self-indulgent bravura. Effortless high notes were tossed at every turn and held for a very long time. But that was not all Pratt had to offer: she sings with a pure, crystalline tone, a uniform production that moves smoothly across the registers, and perfect coloratura. At times one could have wished for a stronger lower register (where at times Pratt was overpowered by the orchestra or other singers) or a slightly more committed acting, but that’s really quibbling with a wonderful singer.

At the end of “Ardon gli incensi” the audience went wild and refused to stop clapping until Pratt broke out of character, smiled, and with a wink to the conductor launched herself in a repeat of the final cadenza (which she sang with the same notes, but with completely different accents and approach) including the E-flat at the end.

No less spectacular was the Edgardo of Jean-Francois Borras, known to New Yorkers for being the cover who stepped in for Jonas Kaufmann at a Met performance of Werther, but whom I had not heard before. His Edgardo was passionate, elegant and noble, all elements reflected in his singing. The voice, while not large, is projected effortlessly from a strong lower register to a full, almost “enveloping” rather than ringing top.

Julian Kim slightly oversang his Enrico, but Riccardo Zanellato produced sufficient gravitas for the role of Raimondo. Emanuele D’Aguanno did well as Arturo, singing with a voice that reminded me of a young Juan Diego Flórez.