WNO Leave the Best Till Last in Their Donizetti Trilogy

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Donizetti, Roberto Devereux (Production Première) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Operas, Daniele Rustioni (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 2.10.2013 (GPu)

Elizabetta – Alexandra Deshorties
Roberto Devereux – Leonardo Capalbo
Sara, Duchessa di Nottingham – Leah-Marian Jones
Guglielmo Cecil – Geraint Dodd
Duca di Nottingham – David Kempster
Gualtiero Raleigh – William Robert Allenby
Un familiare di Nottingham – Stephen Wells
Un paggio – George Newton-Fitzgerald

Conductor – Daniele Rustioni
Director – Alessandro Talevi
Designer – Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer – Matthew Haskins
Chorus Master – Stephen Harris
Musical Preparation – Stephen Wood
Language Coach – Marco Canepa
Stage Manager – Katie Heath-Jones
Production Manager – Robert Pagett
The performances of Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda which opened Welsh National Opera’s Donizetti trilogy, branded as ‘The Tudors’, were, in large part, vocally and musically stimulating and satisfying. But the ahistorical imperceptiveness of the productions frustrated and irritated. Ignoring – or wilfully flouting – the social mores of the period within which Donizetti and his librettists imagined the events of the two operas led to a damaging incoherence and implausibility. The production style adopted in Roberto Devereux is not radically different from that of its predecessors, but it is here scarcely a problem at all, because this is a work of a rather different nature. Where Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda are historical fantasies – however imprecise the history – Roberto Devereux is a fully fledged tragedy and thus less dependent on any kind of theatrical representation of its supposed historical setting. An analogy might be drawn with Shakespeare. Produce one of the Henry VI plays with no respect for the historical context of the events and characters it depicts and it falls flat on its face. King Lear, on the other hand, allows a director much greater freedom. Its narrative and its emotional/moral situations transcend, in their myth-like power, the particularities of any specific historical period – even if one could be sure quite what period, if any, Shakespeare had in mind. Similarly, the dramatic intensity of Roberto Devereux, the concentrated power of Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto and the power of most of Donizetti’s music, makes of this third ‘Tudor’ opera a work which, as a tragedy of isolation and conflicted emotions, exists as much more than merely a story of ‘The Tudors’. So, while Alessandro Talevi’s production varies over many of the features of his production of Anna Bolena – the absence of any serious representation of a sixteenth century world in terms of either costume or props; much use of an enclosing black-box set; no attempt to register (save as they are mentioned in the libretto) the ideological conflicts of the period – but this time the strategy works, as a way of focusing attention on the emotional core of the work, a core which generates considerable power.


The evening got off to an auspicious start with a vibrant performance of the excellent overture which Donizetti wrote for the Parisian première of the work in December 1838, fourteen months after the opera’s first Neapolitan performance. Ever since I first heard this overture some years ago, I have mentally included it on my hypothetical playlist of Italian Operatic overtures (along with such familiar masterpieces as the overtures to Norma, Luisa Miller, La Forza del Destino, Il barbiere di Siviglia and some lesser known delights such as Vivaldi’s overtures to L’Olimpiade and La Griselda). My pleasure in this splendid overture – with its amusing and effective quotation of ‘God Save the King/Queen’, its stormy passages and its amorous episodes – was obviously widely shared by the Cardiff audience, to many of whom it was probably new. I don’t think I have ever heard an overture applauded so enthusiastically and lengthily in the opera house. This was the first sign that the orchestra of WNO would respond admirably (as it had in Anna Bolena) to Daniele Rustioni’s animated and animating conducting. The promise implicit in the quality of the overture was certainly kept fully in the rest of the evening.

Queen Elizabeth is, whatever the work’s title, the dominating presence in this opera.  Hers is the truly tragic suffering at the heart of the work. A strong central performance is therefore essential to any successful production. The French-Canadian soprano Alexandra Deshorties fitted the bill superbly. Her Elisabetta was a histrionic, often hysterical, figure always near the boundaries of sanity. Her initial appearance – in a predominantly black-costumed stage world, as a scarlet robed-figure more reminiscent of a nineteenth-century courtesan past her best, who had anachronistically taken some unwise fashion advice from Vivienne Westwood – was compellingly striking. A tall thin figure, heavily made up and with her hair fiercely dyed, she manically dominated a courtly environment whose only furniture was an illuminated tank containing what appeared to be monstrous insects which were seen only in silhouette. This queen (more than once I thought of an even more surreal version of Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts) was a spider at the centre of a web, the threads of her desires and passions seeking to control all around her, but finally unable to control herself, a victim of what John Donne called “the spider love, which transubstantiates all, / and can convert manna to gall”. Deshorties’ movements were full of nervous tics and twitches, an awkwardness of physical balance as she moved around the stage reflecting an inner mental unbalance. As a result Elisabetta’s final ‘mad’ aria emerged organically, as it were, a fulfilment of what we had witnessed throughout, a proper imaginative completion of character and plot, not merely a bel canto set piece. Throughout Deshorties deployed a formidable vocal range, occasionally at the cost of some harshness and stridency, though her singing was always in the service of a fierce emotional expressiveness. When in Acts II and III a lager mechanical spider became the Queens’ throne and vehicle it seemed a proper externalisation of her character, as well as a striking coup de theatre.

Elisabetta’s ‘rival, the wholly fictitious Sara, Duchessa di Nottingham was an altogether more passive figure, melancholy her dominant mode, as opposed to the active jealousy of Elisabetta. Leah-Marian Jones gave as good a performance as I have ever seen or heard from her, consistently sweet (but by no means saccharine) of voice and never becoming merely self-pitying in her conception of the character. Dramatically, as a character ‘to whom things happen’ and to whom Donizetti gives less spectacular music than he does to Elisabetta, Sara is not a rival for the Queen in the way that Maria Stuarda is and there is no parallel scene of confrontation. In voice, as well as in stage manner and presence, Deshorties and Jones were a perfectly complementary pair.

Amongst the men, greatest attention naturally fell on Leonardo Capalbo in the title role. Dressed in a stylish leather outfit, he looked not so much like a warrior recently returned from fighting in the bogs of Ireland as an elegant young man from Milan who had recently arrived off-stage on his Ducati. A good lyrical tenor in an authentic Italian manner, Capalbo is not a great actor-singer, but he was never less than vocally persuasive. Devereux’s Act III aria ‘Come uno spirito angelico’ was the high spot that it should be. (It is unfortunate that Donizetti should follow this with the misjudged march and caballeta which closes the scene as inappropriately as the fine, almost Beethovenian prelude had opened the scene aptly.) David Kempster was impressive and moving as Nottingham, torn between friendship and the loyalties of marriage and finally torn apart by the conflict.  Kempster’s Nottingham was an initially stiff and stolid character who unfolded and blossomed, vocally, under the realisation that his moral and emotional certainties were far more unstable than he had assumed them to be. Although, as Cecil, Geraint Dodd had little of substance to sing, he made his character a relentless and threatening figure, unimpressed – to put it mildly – by a ‘glamorous’ figure such as Devereux.


WNO’s Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda were very qualified successes, but this was something like a triumph. Whoever decided that the three operas were cast in the same theatrical idiom and could therefore be presented in a uniform production style seriously inhibited the chances of the first two operas making their case(s) successfully, though I can see that inescapable economic reasons may have contributed to such a decision. However, the chosen style allowed Roberto Devereux to appear for what it is, one of Donizetti’s finest works and, indeed, one of the finest of Italian operatic tragedies before Verdi. Despite some of the reservations I expressed in earlier reviews about the productions of Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda, I am grateful and delighted that WNO should have undertaken this adventurous and ambitious project and  should have brought it to such a successful conclusion.


Glyn Pursglove