If familiarity breeds contempt, unusual longevity breeds a mixture of admiration and suspicion. We all can name singers who burst onto the scene, commanded attention, and flamed out in less than a decade due to imperfect technique, bad advice, foolish ambition, personal problems. Then, there are the more typical star careers: perhaps 20 or 25 really good years and then off to teaching, with some competition-judging sprinkled in.

But what of those singers who keep hanging around after 35 or 40 years in major roles? What of those who manage to reinvent themselves for second, even third careers in very different repertoire? One may ask how brightly they could they have been burning all along, and how much candle is left. A new Roberto Devereux DVD from Teatro Real, Madrid, taped October 2015, offers an opportunity to appraise the recent work of such a soprano and tenor. 

Mariella Devia’s professional career began in 1973 with what would become a signature role, Donizetti’s Lucia. An admired technician in the lyric roles of Mozart, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi, she has in her sixties set aside fragile young things to confront the drammatico d’agilità repertoire: Norma, Lucrezia Borgia, the Tudor queens. Devia was 67 at the time of the present performance. Her tenor consort, Gregory Kunde, was 61 and had sung for nearly as long. By 2015, this former Nemorino and Ernesto had the Otellos of both Rossini and Verdi in his toolbox.

Devia had first taken the measure of the Devereux Elisabetta in a series of concert performances in the preceding four years, including a 2014 Carnegie Hall date ecstatically reviewed by our Christopher Corwin. Here in Madrid, the soprano was attempting the role for the first time in a staged production, one shared by Teatro Real and Welsh National Opera.

“Mariella Devia knows how to sing” is not a very useful critical observation. It is the bullet, even so. I do not think anyone really “defies” time; one bargains with it. The victory is in coming out with a good deal. There are, to be sure, compromises here. The bottom of the soprano’s range lacks authority; she valiantly flings out what there is of a chest and returns to safer ground. Hers was and remains a fundamentally soft-grained instrument, a Lucia/Gilda/Elvira (Puritani) voice, and the timbre was never meltingly lovely. The effort that goes into putting that voice through Elisabetta’s paces robs it of color and shade (the more strenuous passages are monochromatic), and there is a sacrifice in verbal clarity too.

The beautiful singing here is less in the sound than in the way the voice moves; the understanding of why the notes are grouped as they are, what the gestures express; the rhythmic control with which Donizetti’s designs are respected. Devia fluently speaks the language, not only the Italian language of Cammarano’s libretto but the stylized language of the intricate music. Her savvy showing tightens its grip on the listener as the performance progresses, as she warms and settles into the assignment. She is especially effective in the queen’s moments of sadness and introspection. A master class in contoured recitative sets up an inward “Vivi, ingrato,” and “Quel sangue versato” is achieved with a forcefulness built on painstaking precision. The top of the voice is miraculously well preserved.

A large portion of Kunde’s career, like Devia’s, has been spent in this repertoire, but he is an odd match with his leading lady, and perhaps the mismatch is dramatically effective. Where her performance is all elegant solutions and fastidious touches, his is an example of a veteran singer powering his way through, with the wear showing most in the middle. The scene in the prison cell impresses more for an heroic vehemence than for mournfulness and poignancy, which would need a truer legato and a wider range of dynamic options. Like Devia, Kunde knows what he can do well, and he pursues one of the plausible options for shaping Devereux’s musical and dramatic profile.

Silvia Tro Santafé honorably serves the recessive Sara without making it seem a grateful role, as has been achieved by the best of my experience. The Spanish mezzo’s sound is dark-tinged and can fog over with chesty resonance, and there is more of a throb to the tone than I remember from a Dulcinée I heard several years ago. The voice is a healthy one, with registers well integrated and technique secure.

Italian baritone Marco Caria sings attractively if stiffly as the Duke of Nottingham. One hears of singers who “caress” music; Caria props it up and ministers to it, more caretaker than lover. One enjoys the sounds he makes while wishing he would relax, “give” (in the sense of musical flexibility, not emotional generosity) a little more. His rigid, correct posture carries over in handling of line. He replaced the scheduled Mariusz Kwiecien, so perhaps these are not ideal circumstances for an evaluation. Bass Andrea Mastroni is a crisp, sonorous Raleigh.

The production by Alessandro Talevi, with set and costume designs by Madeleine Boyd, is less opulent than a crowd-pleasing one unveiled by the Met later in the same season, but it has more personality. Talevi and Boyd lean on the usual visual strategies for “oppressive court” in modern productions. Elisabetta’s (ugly) red gown and Sara’s blue dress are among the few items standing out against prevailing dark tones.

The spare setting features a paned backdrop of opaque windows, against which mysterious hands can be seen pressing. Later, the perspective is reversed and we see that these hands belong to Elisabetta’s obsequious subjects, who are eager to know what is going on in a world from which they are excluded. Their lives revolve around the doings of the higher-ups. When Elisabetta literally turns her back on them in the final scene, they crawl after her pathetically.

Elisabetta is shown in the first act to raise spiders, and the women of the chorus wander away from Sara’s “All’afflitto è dolce il pianto” to observe a large (projected) spider in a terrarium. They fear the creature but also fawn over it–it prefigures their attitude toward the queen herself. Elisabetta feeds a dead mouse to the spider during her first cabaletta. She later mounts a wheeled, spider-shaped throne, its legs controlled by female attendants, and it (she) chases Devereux around the stage in a scene that plays better than it sounds. The idea is got across that the throne itself, or the power it represents, transforms this feeble woman into something more, makes her fearsome. One’s mind can go to the petty real-life despot of one’s choosing, who stopped being ridiculous and became frightening at a particular moment.

There is more brutality in the staging than some will like. The Duke of Nottingham decks his unfaithful wife so convincingly that I was startled, and then climbs on her back and chokes her with the handkerchief. Devereux shows the effects of a recent flaying in his prison scene. This is 17th-century London as a sad, ugly place, from the musty environment to the people within, all the way up to the perverted queen in her red eye shadow and candy-corn upsweep. When Elisabetta experiences sadness and regret in the final act, the upsweep droops, and Devia looks quite beautiful in a new silver wig.

The staging’s worst lapse is in that final scene: everyone except Elisabetta falls to the ground, and the stage turntable is employed for a reason that eludes me. As Elisabetta sings, Sara and Nottingham circle her like merry-go-round horses.

All four of the principal figures are effectively characterized, but there is virtually no chemistry between any two of them, and I was unsure whether this was intentional. Some scenes have an exploratory feel, notably the one for the tenor and mezzo, which looks like early rehearsal footage of people not yet used to each other. The staging and, indeed, Cammarano’s libretto dangle before Devia a few opportunities for camp humor, but she does not snatch them as another singer might have; she is too serious-minded (imagine Greer Garson cast in Beyond the Forest). She does smile furtively after her first-act cabaletta, and I suspect this was Devia’s smile rather than Elisabetta’s–she was pleased it went well.

It would be easy to underrate what Maestro Bruno Campanella, an old colleague of the soprano’s, does here, because he does not call attention to himself. His is a fairly strict but intimately conceived reading with a lot of accompanimental knowhow, encouraging of ornamentation by the singers–connoisseur’s primo ottocénto. The Madrid orchestra is no better than adequate in response, and what Campanella guides these players to do is more praiseworthy than their rough execution of it.

Technical quality of the DVD is first-rate in sound and picture, but the English subtitles are distractingly fragmented, as if conveying asthmatic hesitation. “This is an unexpected” is followed several seconds later by the next subtitle: “blow” by itself.

I cannot call this a great performance of an Italian dramatic opera of this vintage–a few things are not nailed down securely enough–and the DVD would not be the first I would hand to someone for conversion purposes. Probably many equally good performances of Roberto Devereux have gone undocumented and undistributed since 1837. But this one is an example of how it can work when it does work, and it has a number of compelling virtues. It is often meaningful, never uninteresting, and there are brains, taste and good judgment in it. That is more than we often get.

Of course, the primary feature of interest will be Devia, and her admirers can be assured she maintains a high vocal standard as she closes in on 70. I am not sure what kind of spiders Talevi’s queen is raising, but the female of the common brown tarantula species long outlives the male, and can survive for 35 years if properly cared for. La Devia’s professional career long ago blew past an equivalent lifespan, and her well-cared-for voice suggests she could keep spinning and scaling for years to come. One hopes the younger members of her colony are absorbing her lessons.