Cher Public

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.

  • Ilka Saro

    I see that Devia has not sung any roles at the Met since 1994. Apparently she sang a concert there in 2006, but otherwise nothing since her 94 Lucias. Even before then, though she sang from time to time (including quite a memorable Konstanze), they don’t seem to have used her much. So I wonder: did the Met drop her, or did she drop the Met? Or was it a sort of mélange?

    My recollection of her was that her singing was very correct, and that her voice was gorgeous from top to bottom, very evenly matched, but that her interpretations lacked passion. Has that changed?

    • uwsinnyc

      To me, Devia is one of the greatest singers of this generation.

      With respect to her limited engagements at the MET,

      1. it’s not really a Met sized voice- not only is her voice not big, it also doesn’t have a ping to it. Even hearing her at Carnegie Hall, I found that the voice disappears a lot into the ensembles.

      2. She’s a great vocal actress but lacks physical presence. That doesn’t work as well today in the Gelb / HD era diva.

      3. There are a number of A listers who have never or rarely sung at the MET (e.g., Bartoli). I also believe (I could be wrong) that Devia doesn’t like to fly, which doesn’t help.

      • steveac10

        “There are a number of A listers who have never or rarely sung at the MET (e.g., Bartoli). I also believe (I could be wrong) that Devia doesn’t like to fly, which doesn’t help.”

        Devia was at the Met nearly every season in the 80’s and early 90’s. She was their go to Gilda for 3 or 4 seasons and also sang Despina, Nanetta, Konstanze and Lucia. Having heard her several times in the house I can testify she was not heard to her best advantage there. Her voice did not have the ping other light voiced sopranos had that allowed the voice to carry. (it’s why singers like Betsy Norden can have lengthy careers there -- she sounded almost like a boy soprano but could still be heard under the overhangs because it was laser sharp). Also Devia was a rather inert and almost frumpy presence on stage back then.

        • uwsinnyc

          yes you said it better than I did, steveac10.

          I’ve always found it interesting that there can be a difference between size of voice and audibility in a given house. There are voices that are smallish but carry so beautifully (Dessay comes to mind) then there are others that are ones like Devia’s that are heard best close up.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Goro (Vespa, ragno maledetto!)

  • coloraturafan

    • DerLeiermann

      Thank you so much, Coloraturafan. You’re always saving the day!

      <3

    • Milady DeWinter

      Thank you indeed for the Jessica Pratt “Lucia” coloraturafan. She is fast rising to the top of my list of “Current Best Coloraturas in the World”. I mean, who else is there? Rachael Gilmore and Maria Aleida are certainly in the running, but neither one has captured the public’s or critics’favor en masse yet. Maybe Ms. Pratt is the next anointed.

      • la vociaccia

        I mean, who else is there?

        Erin Morley and Sabine Devieilhe are in my opinion far finer singers than Maria Aleida or Rachel Gilmore (even if they lack the dog whistle extension of the latter two).

        Jessica Pratt is quite busy and well known in Italy; I don’t know if she has any interest in establishing a long-term North American career at this point (I managed to catch her at the Caramoor Ciro in Babilonia, in which she was quite good. Don’t know if she has come back to the states since then.)

        • la vociaccia

          Having said that, it appears Devieilhe has in fact added more (and higher) ornaments to her Doll Aria. She is so wonderful…

        • Milady DeWinter

          “Erin Morley and Sabine Devieilhe” --

          -well you are quite right, vociaccia -- I forgot about those two excellent singers. And they seem to have more of the “Dessay Drive” in their vocal profile. A plus, and a minus, imo.
          But I do adore the dog whistle extensions. With no apologies, I admit to being an SAS (Super Aigu Slut).

          But if you had to put the whole thing into one package, I’d still place Pratt at the top of the list, with a bow on top.

          • la vociaccia

            Pratt is indeed very, very impressive. And I notice she is doing Semiramide with Washington Concert Opera in November, so who knows; maybe she will gain traction with U.S companies.

          • Camille

            Thanks, fellows, for your discussion of Jessica Pratt as I have been a bit curious about her since having heard Monty ostry speak well of her. Too bad I desisted on her Caramoor outing, and not sure if it is worthwhile to go to DC, but it is of note and worth considering.

            • la vociaccia

              It is too bad you missed the Caramoor Ciro, Camille, as that was also the night that introduced me to Michael Spyres, who was AMAZING. The audience reaction was so strong after his Act 2 scena that he had to come out and take a bow.

        • Gualtier M

          Jessica Pratt is indeed making her way to U.S. shores singing Semiramide in D.C. next month:

          WASHINGTON CONCERT OPERA PERFORMS ROSSINI’S SEMIRAMIDE
          Starring Jessica Pratt and Vivica Genaux -- November 22, 2015, at Lisner Auditorium
          Washington, DC (September 21, 2015)– Washington Concert Opera is proud to announce its 2015-2016 Season. This season WCO returns to bel canto with Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide (November 22, 2015), and Gaetano Donizetti’s La Favorite (March 4, 2016). True to Washington Concert Opera’s mission, both are rarely performed opera masterpieces.

          Washington Concert Opera will debut Semiramide November 22, 2015 at 6pm at Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University. This two-act opera features dazzling virtuostic arias, spectacular chorus and orchestral writing, and is Rossini’s most monumental work. The libretto, penned by Gaetano Rossi, is based on Voltaire’s tragedy, Semiramis. It is a lush tale of murder, power and revenge, bringing ancient Babylon to life. Queen Semiramide pays the price of her deceitful crimes with the heartbreak from an impossible love. It will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.

          The rarely performed, bel canto opera will be performed in the Baroque tradition and is known for its dramatic scenes, large orchestras and show-stopping arias. Coloratura soprano, Jessica Pratt, will make her much-anticipated WCO debut as Queen Semiramide, a role for which she is gaining international recognition and will be performing at Opera Municipal de Marseille before she takes WCO’s stage. American mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux will return to the WCO stage in the trouser role of Arsace. She previously performed with the company as the title role in La Cenerentola in 2010 and Falliero in Rossini’s Bianca e Falliero. Having completed 200 Rossini performances, she is considered one of the “preeminent interpreters of bel canto”. Tenor Taylor Stayton will play Idreno, bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, Assur, and bass-baritone Evan Hughes will sing for the part of ­­­­Oroe. Artistic Director and Conductor, Maestro Antony Walker, takes the stage for his 14th season with WCO.

          • Milady DeWinter

            Thanks for that Semiramide information, Gualtier.
            I do hope Ms. Pratt makes a real splash. What an asset to the Met she would be. Damrau is moving beyond it all, and queued in place Nadine Sierra is still very green. Pratt is pret-a-porter!

            • Feldmarschallin

              You want haute couture. Althought the great maison du haute couture have now closed. Valentino and St. Laurent are dead or retired and the houses are a shadow of what they wore. Now they show rags and not what elegant women wear. Galliano is still amazing but he is the only one and without a great house.

            • steveac10

              “I do hope Ms. Pratt makes a real splash. What an asset to the Met she would be. Damrau is moving beyond it all, and queued in place Nadine Sierra is still very green. Pratt is pret-a-porter!”

              The Met seems far more interested in Peretyatko and Shagimuratova for a reason that has so far eluded me. They appeared to be investing in Erin Morley as well (and I know she is inked for the new Rosenkavalier) -- but she’s not on the roster this season -- and has few first tier gigs elsewhere. At least they appear to have stopped hiring Anna Christy.

            • armerjacquino

              Long may Galliano be ‘without a great house’. Nasty little fascist that he is.

  • LondonCyclist

    >As in last year’s concert at Carnegie Hall, Devia >displayed all her familiar virtues… If anything she
    > was in even better voice than last year.
    >Devia decided not to conclude with the high D natural >that shook the rafters of Carnegie Hall last year.
    > nobody (including myself) seem to have missed it.
    Laura, I understand you best intentions, but what you are saying is just not objective. We were there too. Flowing legato and phrasing are there, interpretations are exquisite, but high notes, power and overtones were gone. And while Vivi Ingrato was beautiful indeed, Quel Sangua merely lacked authority. And yes, lots of us in Teatro Real missed the high D. Devia is a consummate professional who intelligently overcame most of these problems, she hardly needs this kind of protection, especially given that full recordings of both Carnegie-2014 and Teatro Reale-2015 are on YouTube.

    • Laura Amorosa

      I am not trying to protect anybody. I am not sure exactly what “protection” means in this context.

      I am glad the recording is there so that people can make their own opinion. I was aware of it when I wrote this

      One can say that “power and overtones” were never there in Devia’s voice. It has always been on the small side, and somewhat not ‘harmonically full”.
      There is no doubt that the voice is worn down. There is also no doubt that her technical mastery compensated in the past, and compensates now, for those shortcomings.

      I wonder if how many years she plans to keep singing.

      By the way I make a point of sitting up close when I go see her, which probably accounts for some of the differences in opinion.

      • Milady DeWinter

        Well I heard Devia’s Lucia at the Met years back and it was wonderful. True, the voice didn’t quite ping throught the caverns like, say, June Anderson’s, but besides flawless musicianship, the one very exceptional thing about Devia in her prime years was that the voice actually grew more beautiful and round in tone as it ascended the scale. That much beauty of tone at the very top of the soprano range is a gift doled out penuriously by the voice gods.

  • LT

    Devia and “shook the rafters”? Sounds questionable.

    • Gualtier M

      Rafters shook:

      • Gualtier M

        Sorry thought I had posted that to start at a certain time stamp: go to 7 minutes 55 seconds

      • Gualtier M

        Sorry thought I had posted that to start at a certain time stamp: go to 7 minutes 55 seconds

        • Milady DeWinter

          I’d say that certainly qualifies as a rafter-shaking note, especially in the acoustic of Carnegie.

          • Camille

            Indeed it was. I, and many others who were there, will gladly attest to the fact. It was also most heartwarming to see her gven such an overwhelming and loving response by all the mad opera fiends and queens, which she so richly deserves.

            The performance of Lucia di Lammermoore from the early nineties, available via various means but I happened to access it via Sirius, so shocked and delighted me I had to drive to the side of the road and stop the car, in order to concentrate on and marvel at what I heard. Really, she should be on the roster of the Lindemann or teaching somewhere as she is a textbook examplar of how to sing well, very well.

            • LondonCyclist

              Yesss! :D
              Was about to wish her good luck, but she’d made it before I managed.

              >I make a point of sitting up close when I go see her,
              So did we, row 8.

              A minor one:
              >“power and overtones” were never there in Devia’s voice
              Ermm… Overtones are actually the definition of opera singing. These are the high frequency sounds on top of the primary tone allowing voice projection. They are not subjective, you can easily see them in mp3. Devia, as any professional opera singer, has always had overtones, her high notes, while not loud,have always been piercing. So ‘overtones were never there’ is a bit of :D.

              I think, the major problem with Devia was that she’d never promoted herself. Well, if she had, it’d probably be a different person and singer… But still, most people, myself including, came across her completely accidentally. I was actually listening to Caballe’s Preghiera and became curious who else can sing it as it’s written. It turned out, 2-3 people in the world. The second one was Devia. And then I suddenly realised that for the first time I hear every word of Preghiera. And while the timbre is not special, these phrases,this breath control are just impossible… Who is that? And then there was Se Un Giorno -- and the chain reaction. Stuarda, Borgia, Lucia of 90-s, mini-skirt and long-skirt Traviatas… And sitting there in Madrid enjoying these still breathtaking lines I was only wishing I’d discovered her earlier.

              Regarding teaching: she does teach in Italy and mentioned she is going to continue with it. So there’s hope for the next generation Mariellas :)

  • Milady DeWinter

    “-- At least they appear to have stopped hiring Anna Christy.”
    -Thank God for small miracles steveac10!
    -Camille- yes, I should not denigrate Mme. Pratt; she’s definitely “haute” and definitely Pratt-a-Porter!

  • Laura Amorosa

    Ms.Devia apparently took the high D tonight in Madrid. So maybe she was not 100% or maybe she waited for the last show :)

    • Camille

      Grazie Madonna Laura for reporting in on this and—dountless—Signora Devia, or her minions reported to her, that this very hot topic was being discussed in the pages of parterre—and she therefore set forth to make good on her high note.

      Better, a thousand times, that a singer should withhold a high note than give us the kind of whooppee-cushion shock-squack which we were regaled with at the prima of the ill-fared Anna Bolena, e.g.

  • Milady DeWinter

    “whooppee-cushion shock-squack which we were regaled with at the prima of the ill-fared Anna Bolena, e.g.--”
    --quip of the day my dear!

    Also, to steveac10, yes, they Met is giving love to La Shaga and Peretyako too. I like Olga; she is sort of old-fashioned, in a nice way, and she does work with Devia herself, so at least she’s getting some sound guidance. Although she can’t put the proverbial patch on her teacher.

  • isoldit

    I was at the last performance last night, Devia was fabulous, thought the rest of the cast great too. best Donizetti I have heard in years, She is truly a miracle, the last of the great Italian bel canto singers. The production sucks but the music was great, It was also telecast last night in Spain, I believe live.