Melbourne Opera manages to produce high quality operatic productions throughout the year without government funding. This is what makes their current production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux all the more astounding. It is a rarely performed work and the final in a trilogy of Donizetti’s Tudor-era operas presented by the company. The titular character of Roberto is played with gravity and courage by coloratura lyric tenor Henry Choo. His is a voice of rare beauty, with the capacity for sweetness as well as high drama. His interpretation of Roberto’s Act 3 aria “Come uno spirto angelico” alone was worth the ticket price. In fact this production is a feast for lovers of the “bel canto” style of opera. Set at the court of Elizabeth 1 in 1601, the story is loosely based on the ageing queen’s relationship with court favourite and former lover, Robert Devereux. When Donizetti’s opera was premiered in 1837, with Libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, the prevailing performance style was melodrama, and this production has it in spades.
Australian soprano Helena Dix is simply superb in the role of Queen Elizabeth 1. Not only because of her magnificent singing, but her brilliant command of the character. Her vocal and emotional range is enormous and the voice voluptuous. She sings her cadenzas with incredible precision, from the tiniest pianissimo to the full thrill of her top register. She executes runs from what seems like the stratosphere to the very basement of her voice to the complete delight of the rapturous audience – and goose bumps for this reviewer! From her first phrase, we were assured that this was going to be a great night at the opera.
Elizabeth’s rival for Roberto’s affections is Sara, who in Roberto’s absence while fighting in Ireland, has been married off by the Queen to the Duke of Nottingham. When Roberto returns, charged with treason, the two meet and the old flame is rekindled. They must keep this a secret from both her husband the Duke as well as the Queen. The role of the tortured Sara is sung with strength and clarity by mezzo-soprano Danielle Calder. Her husband the Duke is unaware that Sara had been in love with his best friend Roberto before their marriage. Now Roberto’s back and the situation is complex. The Duke, sung by baritone Phillip Calcagno believes that Robert is innocent of the treason charges, and defends him to the Queen. Elizabeth is convinced that she has a rival for Roberto’s affections and is determined to find out who she is. The rest of the opera concerns the unravelling of their secret to the inevitably grisly end.
In act 2, there is a very beautiful duet between the Duke and Sara and a trio in which Roberto joins them. The voices are very well matched, with Calcagno’s dark-edged timbre blending with the warm tones of the mezzo and the tenor. The ensemble singing is outstanding, with great effort by the singers to achieve a seamless balance. Of course, holding all this together as well as a chorus and pit orchestra is a massive undertaking. The entire company was kept in time under the patient baton of conductor Greg Hocking. If at times the orchestral sound was a little on the thin side, such are the limitations of a small company and a small theatre.
Director Suzanne Chaundy has done a sterling job of presenting the piece in the style as it was intended to be experienced. She managed to elicit moving performances from her cast, even with the limitations created by the English translation. At times, the English words did not comfortably fit the rhythm; which was intended to be sung in Italian. As a result, some of the most dramatic moments became comical instead, and I would prefer to hear this opera sung in its original language.
The set, designed by Christina Logan-Bell is a collection of enormous screens resembling Tudor windows and ceilings; which create the great hall of Westminster, then the Duke’s palace, as well as the Tower of London. The costumes are lavish and beautiful and the scenes with the whole company onstage look like historic tableau paintings.
This a wonderful production of a rarely seen bel canto gem, sung to a truly international standard, right here in Melbourne and is not to be missed by opera lovers.
Editor’s note: This is a limited season which plays until November 18 at the Athenaeum Theatre. More details and booking. http://www.melbourneopera.com/