Even before Italian diva Mariella Devia had completed the stunning high D natural that capped her miraculous portrayal of Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux Thursday evening at Carnegie Hall, tens, then hundreds of those in attendance leapt to their feet to shout their acclaim at the conclusion of the most recent example of that most quintessential event for many New York operagoers: the concert opera. 

Since the creation of the American Opera Society in the early 1950s nearly every season has seen at least one concert performance of an opera—no sets, no costumes, just an orchestra (and usually a chorus) on stage accompanying a group of (hopefully) starry singers in a usually rarely performed work. While this kind of opera presentation occurs occasionally in other major music capitals across the world, it has always struck me as a particularly beloved phenomenon in New York. While other cities have come under the thrall of regietheater, here there are still many for whom allegiance to star singers (rather than directors) remains supreme.

Fans with long memories love to recall Anita Cerquetti’s sole New York appearance in Gluck’s Paride ed Elena or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Doktor Faustus and Orfeo, his only operatic roles in the US or Eileen Farrell as Rossini’s (!) Desdemona or Richard Tucker’s Vasco in Meyerbeer’s L’Africana in 1972 during the first season of Opera Orchestra of New York, the organization under conductor Eve Queler that succeeded AOS as the principal purveyor of these operatic love-ins. Occasionally other groups have stepped up too: I especially remember a Giovanna d’Arco at Avery Fisher Hall with Margaret Price, Carlo Bergonzi and Sherrill Milnes, Kathleen Battle’s only Semele during a series celebrating Handel’s tricentenary and Janet Baker’s unannounced US farewell in Gluck’s Orfeo.

But for over 40 years, Queler has been responsible for several of each season’s “must-attend events,” including US premieres of works like Puccini’s Edgar and Boito’s Nerone, as well as the introduction of many important singers to New York. Thanks to OONY, New York audiences heard Nicolai Gedda’s sole Dalibor, Mara Zampieri’s single local appearance in Mercadante’s Il Giuramento,  Wagner’s colossal Rienzi (more than once) and—so far—Aprile Millo’s only Adriana and Minnie. I’ll never forget Leonie Rysanek dragging Gabriela Benacková back to bow after the orchestra had left the stage following a particularly searing second act of Jenufa because the audience simply wouldn’t stop applauding. Like many performing arts organizations, Opera Orchestra has faced challenges recently and yet Carnegie Hall was mostly full Thursday with many of New York’s most savvy opera lovers fervently hoping for yet another OONY miracle which, in one important way, the audience got.

While Montserrat Caballé sang Elisabetta at Carnegie Hall in 1965, the same year as her historic Lucrezia Borgia debut, and a previous OONY Devereux scheduled to star Zampieri which instead featured Martile Rowland, for many New Yorkers Donizetti’s wrenching portrait of an aging queen in love with a feckless younger man remains one of Beverly Sills’s most indelible roles, one she sang many times with the New York City Opera. Unfortunately lightning didn’t strike twice when a misbegotten 2000 production by Mark Lamos starring a hard-working Lauren Flanigan flopped at City Opera.

Although the MET has recently been mounting Donizetti’s so-called “Tudor Trilogy” of Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, it hasn’t yet gotten to the last of these although a production starring Sandra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta is planned for an upcoming season. So Queler and company jumped in early to fill this gap: its raison d’être being the return of Devia. Absent from the Met for twenty years and OONY for fifteen, the Italian soprano has remained a paragon of bel canto singing, primarily performing in her native country. Intense yet somewhat subdued entrance applause greeted the diminutive diva (who recently turned 66) suggesting that the New York public hadn’t quite forgotten her.

I have to admit that as this Devereux approached I felt a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. I was astonished to realize that I hadn’t seen Devia live for nearly 32 years! The last time I heard her and the only time I had seen her in a staged opera was a Lucia di Lammermoor at the Dayton Opera in the fall of 1982. I remember it being very technically accomplished but absolutely dull. I somehow missed her 15-year Met career which was mostly about Gilda and Lucia with some Nanettas and Konstanzes thrown in, as well as her previous OONY appearances which must be acknowledged as the high points of her US career, particularly a Capuleti and a Puritani during the mid-1990s.

Over the years she remained on the periphery of my attention until about five years ago when a friend “dragged” me to Symphony Space to watch an HD transmission from La Scala of Maria Stuarda. My primary motivation was to see the Elisabetta of Anna Caterina Antonacci, but instead I was blown away by the intensely moving Maria of the then-60-year-old Devia. The technical supremacy remained, but the voice has warmed and softened and was now coupled with a dramatic specificity and intensity that I had not expected.

But time marches on and one wondered if Devia would still be singing well, but the answer quickly became clear at Carnegie. Although Elisabetta’s initial recitative sounded uncharacteristically heavy and cloudy, this almost immediately cleared in her aria “L’amor suo mi fè beata” where she traced the intricate lines with infinite care and nuanced flexibility. Although she took her time, this was not a self-indulgent display slowed to a dirge, but a moving insight into the queen’s dangerously deluded romantic obsession with the Earl of Essex. Not pausing for applause, she moved directly into the dialogue with Cecil that led to her first cabaletta “Ah! ritorna qual ti spero” which was spun out with a still sovereign florid technique that included immaculate trills and an inventive flair for ornamentation that has long been a hallmark of her career. Its applause was long and loud.

Elisabetta’s other long solo scene, of course, occurs at the end of the opera where the queen anxiously awaits news of the count’s planned execution. The great aria “Vivi, ingrato” where she makes peace with his faithlessness vowing to forgive him and allow him to live happily with his true love was taken at a surprisingly brisk tempo; other sopranos have made a long, slow meal of this piece but Devia instead sang it with a burning urgency. The cabaletta “Quel sangue versato” after Elisabetta learns of Roberto’s death caused by Nottingham’s vengeance challenged Devia’s essentially lyric voice but its vehemence still singed, and she molded the repeat (unusually set to a different text) with aptly grim ornaments. As she had eschewed added high notes throughout the performance, I suspect that most of the audience were shocked yet thrilled that at the end of the long evening Devia pulled out a really solid high D natural that led to one of the most spontaneous and enthusiastic ovations I have ever witnessed at Carnegie.

Yes, it must be admitted that the voice has aged revealing a very occasional rasp and lack of wanted strength at the bottom. Devia (who wore but a single emerald-green gown) remains such a tasteful, musical singer that I did occasionally hunger for a good old Gencer-glottal, but for the most part she revealed an astonishingly healthy and secure instrument used with an integrity and absence of mannerisms that puts her other “senior” rival in this repertoire to shame. Would that her colleagues Thursday evening had matched her signal achievement!

French mezzo Géraldine Chauvet made a highly promising US debut with OONY as Adriano in Rienzi in 2012 and as Sara, Essex’s pure (if married) paramour, she remains promising. Possessing a large, rather cool mezzo, she sang with an appealing fervor that might have been more satisfying if she hadn’t been so unwaveringly glued to her score to the degree that she scarcely glanced at either her husband or lover during their duets. She needs to work on control at the top of the voice which proved unruly throughout the evening.

As her husband, the initially supportive Nottingham, the very young baritone David Pershall often seemed like a boy sent into do a man’s job. And yet, to his credit, he refused to hector and bark his way through the music (unlike several Met baritones I could name) gaving an honest account of a role he really has no business singing now. I suspect at this point in his career Pershall could instead be a fine Figaro or Belcore, roles he will be singing when he joins the Vienna Staatsoper next season.

The blank at the center of the performance was unfortunately Stephen Costello’s Devereux. One had hoped that after his embarrassingly hang-dog Percy in the Met’s Anna Bolena that the tenor would have been working hard to improve his impossibly inept stage presence and poor bel canto style—sadly, there was no evidence he had. Wearing his signature black t-shirt and an unflinching blank expression of unspecific angst, Costello bawled his way through his music at an unvarying forte. Roberto isn’t the sharpest tack in the box in refusing to see that the queen’s love for him would protect against the risks of his unwise political and romantic follies, but Costello’s blankly uncharismatic portrayal made Elisabetta’s and Sara’s obsessions seem downright boneheaded. Despite serious intonation issues, his basic instrument remains appealing and bracingly Italianate, but clearly he wasn’t listening to Devia when he answered her delicately sculpted verse in their duet with his own flatfooted response.

As ever, Queler struggled to keep her forces together, monotonously beating time while her valiant orchestra struggled to give her more than she asked for. The sincerely enthusiastic ovation given her first appearance of the evening will always be more about her intrepid work as an impresaria than for her accomplishments as a conductor. Opera Orchestra has been struggling recently despite the appointment of Alberto Veronesi as its new music director (whose non-appearance this season suggested that perhaps he isn’t the man to keep the organization going after all), but the genuinely grateful ovations that greeted Donizetti’s opera Thursday evening suggested that New York fervently needs and wants OONY to continue and flourish.