By the early 19th century the story of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, and his liaison with Elizabeth I had already been the subject of a number of theatrical diversions including an opera by Saverio Mercadante. When Gaetano Donizetti decided to set it for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples for the season of 1837 his dramatist Salvadore Cammarano borrowed so liberally from the former’s libretto by Felice Romani (who had conveniently passed on) that his widow threatened a plagiarism suit.
Donizetti fashioned the title role to the formidable gifts of Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis who had created his Maria Stuarda and was considered the greatest Norma of her day second only to Giuditta Pasta. Mme. Ronzi de Begnis seems to have been a bit Zwischenfach in an age that didn’t put hard and fast labels on female voices. She excelled not only as Rossini’s Semiramide and Mozart’s Donna Anna but as Bellini’s Romeo and Rossini’s Desdemona as well. There’s no doubting she had an imposing technique for her career lasted 35 years and her success in Devereux came at the 20 year mark.
Surely for vocal aficionados who enjoy a particular brand of coloratura soprano Devereux is the near equivalent of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Naples finally revived it in the modern era for Leyla Gencer. Not long after Montserrat Caballe took up the crown in concert in New York the same year as her historic debut in Lucrezia Borgia.
But the soprano whose legacy is most closely associated with the tragic ER is Beverly Sills who sang it with the New York City Opera from 1970 (with Placido Domingo in the first production as Devereux) until 1975. Her assumption of the role was so extraordinary that Alan Rich in New York said he left the performance “in a state of euphoria bordering on hysteria”. For years she could also lay claim to the only commercial recording on the Westminster label (now remastered and reissued on Deutsche Grammophon) with an able cast led by a very spirited Charles Mackerras.
The Opera Rara label gave us the second commercial recording in 2003 with Nelly Miricioiu and the forces of Covent Garden under Maurizio Benini. Edita Gruberova seems one of the few singers since endowed with enough vocal dexterity, let alone bravery, to try the robes on for size. Filmed from the Bavarian State Opera in 2005, and released on DVD by DG, the production by Christof Loy is so fiercely updated there was a water cooler stage right.
Now we find Mariella Devia, a diva held in near mythic regard due to her vocal longevity, with competing videos of two of her performances that were released, literally, on the same day. One filmed from the Teatro Real Madrid and another from the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genova. Ms. Devia made her debut on the lyric stage in 1973 as Lucia di Lammermoor and has barely looked back since. An extraordinarily canny singer she was an infrequent visitor to the Metropolitan and after inheriting the Francesco Zambello Lucia fiasco in a 1994 revival hasn’t returned. She celebrated her 65th birthday in 2013 by adding Bellini’s Norma to her repertoire. Currently she’s fast tracked with Mme. Gruberova to be the only sopranos living to sing at their own 75th birthday galas.
I have admired Ms. Devia previously from the video of her Maria Stuarda from La Scala with Anna Caterina Antonacci as a fierce Elizabeth R. Knowing it was a safe bet that I would enjoy her in this role I researched both productions thoroughly and, being ever the traditionalist, picked the one I felt was least likely to utilize a water cooler in the staging.
Our conductor for the evening, Francesco Lanzillotta, saunters into the pit and, despite his whiskers, leads a vigorous account of the overture Donizetti added for Paris. Surely one of his better toe-rappers and it is staged.
I shall pause a moment to discuss the Queen’s costume. She is in gold. Heavy gold satin. Our wizard of wardrobe, Gianluca Falaschi, has ruffled ruffs, puffed sleeves, cinched waists, and fanned out farthingales to the most righteous degree imaginable. All gold. The gold is embellished further with brocaded designs of the royal lion and standard on both front petals of the skirt and back panel. She takes her place on the throne in the final measures of the Overture, and blackout.
The set by Monica Manganelli is a simply constructed wooden platform (read: noisy) with a small flight of stairs facing the audience. There’s both a tall wooden throne and a taller section of gate on magic casters that breeze in and out as needed. The costumes provide all the color and pageantry for the evening’s entertainment… and then some.
At the curtain Sonia Ganassi as Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, veteran of the aforementioned Opera Rara recording, is found supplicant before the court. Her bosom has been swathed with pearls and she wears a black velvet ensemble with white ruffled collar of such enormous proportions we can only conclude she is a very bad girl. Mrs. Nottingham is in love with her husband’s best friend, Roberto You-know-who, and is therefore a further thorn in the side of Her Majesty. Ms. Ganassi starts a little tentative in her first aria but quite soon she’s meeting all of the vocal challenges head on and with relish. The voice is very warm and round. Even if she isn’t the queen of precision she’s a passionate singer in a role that requires just that.
Mme. Devia then glides on enthroned in all her Gloriana to begin her first aria, “L’amor suo mi fe’ beata” whilst dashing all hopes of happiness for Mrs. Nottingham. She is impressive from the first, the tone full and her attack incisive. She takes it easy on the low stuff to begin with, but grows bolder with it as the evening, and the drama, progresses. The voice is always immaculately supported. She paces herself well and shows no hint of fatigue. Scale work is admirable with the exception of the very top which does tend to turn shrill. The audience cares not and worships her like a goddess descended.
The love quadrangle further defines itself with the arrival of Stefan Pop as our titular anti-hero. Mr. Pop is a Romanian tenor and not yet 30. He already shows great promise as a lyric spinto with his masculine tone and graceful singing. His line is clean and he dispatches the mostly downward moving ornaments in his role with ease. He has a handsome face for the stage, looks good with his mouth open (you be surprised how many singers really don’t), and knows how to sing with his arms wide open. If he needs just a bit more seasoning his last act scena shows real artistry even. A hint of strain creeps in at the top in his final phrases but since he’s only been singing professionally for eight years I’d say this is a voice to watch.
Mr. Pop is undeniably a large-framed man of generous proportions. The line of his velvet brocaded doublet and bombasted breeches is so skillfully constructed that, not only does he look good in them, I dare say you would never suspect his actual dimensions from the audience. He and Mme. Devia make easy work of their duet, variously swearing and/or forswearing their love or not to themselves and others. Beloveds it’s a mess.
Then the Duke of Nottingham himself, played by Korean Baritone Mansoo Kim, enters and once again we regard Mr. Falaschi’s costume design (doublet, breeches and matching cape) with wonder. The Duke’s showpiece, “Forse in quel cor sensible” is a serious bel canto work which Mr. Kim sings with mostly grace and refinement. He is strong in the cantabile portions and with good breath but unsteady in the cadenzas that link the two components. All tentativeness falls away however in the rousing cabaletta with repeat. Once again, like his colleagues, it’s just a token lack of polish that separates good from gala.
The next two acts are really more about bravura singing than drama. Sorry to say that our director Alfonso Antoniozzi isn’t given much to work with. What with the small playing space, the lack of set pieces and the costumes, sublimely gorgeous though they may be, doing the heavy lifting for the actors (and vice versa I must say). There is one very stunning reveal of the chorus at a critical juncture in the plot but they all remain masked and costumed in anonymous uniformity throughout.
Needless to say Mme. Devia is decked out like a renaissance crypt keeper for the last scene. Frocked in a peacock colored robe of such enormous proportions it literally becomes an addition to the set at one point. She’s unstinting in her last aria and rises to a startling D natural at the finale at which point the audience has been reduced to indecent zealotry.
I call this a strong contender for inclusion in anyone’s library. All the singers are solid and the work itself is performed in the critical Ricordi edition. DTS 5.1 sound option is very crisp. There are moments when you can tell, because of continuity of lighting, that the DVD is an amalgam of two performances but none of that is glaringly obvious and generally the lighting tends to dark. If you’re a fan of Mme. Devia not only won’t you be disappointed but you now have the Madrid option as well.