Next week the Italian soprano Mariella Devia celebrates her 70th birthday so “Trove Thursday” salutes her not with one of her great bel canto vehicles but instead with one of her earliest New York successes: Delibes’s Lakmé with Nicolai Gedda and Paul Plishka

The day after her 33rd birthday Devia turned to a French coloratura showcase for her debut with Opera Orchestra of New York, a group with which she was associated for 33 years and under whose auspices she displayed her formidable talents rather more distinctly than at the Met. After Lakméshe returned to OONY for Teresa in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini (but canceled a subsequent Robert le Diable) before turning in the 1990s to the Italian repertoire she is best known for—I Capuleti e I Montecchi, I Puritani and a Donizetti rarity Adelia. 

After a 15 year absence she returned for OONY’s Roberto Devereux, one of this decade’s most memorable evenings hailed by the kind of riotous, foot-stomping ovations we don’t often experience these days.

My initial in-person encounter with Devia was coincidentally an excerpt from Lakmé at an ill-starred OONY 1982 Gala where frustration with numerous cancellations (I recall that Christiane Eda-Pierre, Tatiana Troyanos and at least two other announced headliners dropped out) caused audience members to mercilessly heckle Tony Randall, the event’s flustered host. It must have been such a bad experience that it’s not even listed in OONY’s performance history.

But it was memorable for me as it was the only time I ever heard Gedda (singing the Pêcheurs aria) and exciting flash-in-the-pan Margarita Castro-Alberty who was the surprise hit of the night. Devia did show up and sang not the “Bell Song” but a lovely “Berceuse” so I looked forward to her appearance that fall with the Dayton Opera in Lucia di Lammermoor. The Donizetti was the first opera I ever attended twelve years earlier but never a favorite and Devia’s placidly proficient madwoman didn’t change my mind.

By then I was coming to New York for opera but I never caught Devia here perhaps because her Met repertoire was so limited: nearly 30 Gildas as well as a bunch of Lucias and Konstanzes and a few Nanettas and Despinas. I did attend Entführung during those years but got stuck instead with Catherine Malfitano (scary) and Zdzislawa Donat (meek and barely audible), and by 1994 she was gone from the Met for good.

I now bitterly regret that I didn’t catch her during in the 90s but my memory of that blah Lucia discouraged me although I do remember the ecstatic reviews that greeted her OONY Capuleti Giulietta opposite Jennifer Larmore in 1994. She seems to have sung little elsewhere in the US, never with the San Francisco Opera and just one atypical role at the Chicago Lyric, Ilia in Idomeneo several years after her Met career ended.

My interest in Devia took a dramatic turn in 2008 when a friend suggested we attend a screening of Maria Stuarda from La Scala at Symphony Space co-starring Anna Caterina Antonacci, a particular favorite of mine. By the end of that filmed performance I had become a card-carrying Devia-convert. The voice had acquired an unexpected warmth and color and she had become a much more expressive and moving artist. What an amazing experience then to hear her again live in Devereux after a gap of 32 years!

Lakmé remains a Devia-curiosity although she did perform the opera on stage a few times in the 80s. She could be very adventurous tackling unusual works like Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria, Spontini’s Milton and Cherubini’s Lodoïska which was released by Sony. But I should include at least two morsels of her bel canto artistry. Although she didn’t make many commercial recordings there’s remarkable material on YouTube.

One of the most impressive aspects of her work has been the extraordinarily interesting and jaw-dropping (ours not hers) ornamentation she has embraced as can be heard and seen in an exquisite “Son vergin vezzosa” from a campy and bizarre Rome 1990 staging of I Puritani.

While the Met’s recent Semiramide wasn’t entirely without merit, there was too little of the bel canto bliss found in this duet between Devia and Ewa Podles, another artist heard too little in this repertoire in the US.

One can easily hear why this soprano was hailed in Philip Gossett’s Divas and Scholars for her stylish devotion to these 19thcentury works and plans are afoot for a Devia-Rossini “Trove Thursday” later this year. The soprano remains active in Italy still performing a few demanding roles; she sings Norma at the Teatro la Fenice next month.

Delibes: Lakmé
Opera Orchestra of New York
Carnegie Hall
13 April 1981
In-house recording

Lakmé: Mariella Devia
Mallika: Emily Golden
Rose: Michele Boucher
Ellen: Maria Spacagna
Mrs. Bentson: Carolyne James
Gérald: Nicolai Gedda
Frédèric: Lawrence Cooper
Nilakantha: Paul Plishka
Hadji: Norman Large

Conductor: Eve Queler

Lakmé can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

Over 120 “Trove Thursday” podcasts posted since this series began in September 2015 remain available from iTunes for free, or via any RSS reader.