Italy Donizetti: Mariella Devia (soprano) with Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Massimo Palermo. Chorus master, Piero Monti. Conductor, Francesco Lanzillotta. Teatro Massimo, Palermo 3.2.2016. (JB)
Anyone lucky enough to have heard Mariella Devia’s debut as Norma in Bologna in 2013 will never forget it. She was in her early sixties. But the voice was as fresh as any young soprano, her technique as solid as ever and her musicianship lighting up Bellini’s score with vocal colours hitherto unheard.
Now Palermo’s Teatro Massimo have had the bright idea to invite her to give a recital of Donizetti’s three Tudor Queens, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and the Elizabetta of Roberto Devereux (this last a role in which she debuted in Marseille in 2001). A tall order for any singer of any age.
Devia’s preferred costumist, Emanuel Ungaro, designed three dresses for the roles. There were no sets or other distractions and Alberto Cavalotti ensured that all movements of chorus and other singers were kept to a minimum. Devia herself is a disciple of less-is-more when it comes to stage movements.
Each queen is introduced by her opera’s overture. It must be a relief for the orchestra to be back on home ground after the less familiar demands of their Götterdämmerung. Francesco Lanzillotta got some neatly pointed rhythms out of them even if some of the allegros were a little rushed, thereby compromising their charm. Donizetti often echoes his singers with woodwind solos and these soloists were admirable.
Some effort was audible from the queen herself. (Her Norma had sounded gloriously effortless.) Nevertheless, her dramatic expression never faltered. Anne Boleyn’s final moments were indeed tragic and Donizetti provides her with what is effectively a Mad Scene with all the virtuosity that that calls for. However dramatic a role becomes, Devia is incapable of making an ugly sound. That asset is herein wonderfully confirmed. And with Caballé now in retirement, where is there another soprano of whom one can say that?
Janet Baker (mezzo soprano) surprised everyone including herself, when at the end of a long, glorious career, she sang Maria Stuarda, albeit in English, as is the tradition at the London Coliseum (home of English National Opera). I also treasure the late career performances of Maria Stuarda from Joan Sutherland at the Rome Opera. Dame Joan scores highest of anyone with Donizetti’s coloratura demands. But there is much to be said for the darker contours of Dame Janet’s richer, lower notes. It sounds as though Mariella Devia has taken Dame Janet as her role model here. Even if this means that the Devia voice is a little more forced than usual, I would agree that it is a sacrificial path worth her exploring.
Montserrat Caballé was the last Queen Elisabetta that I heard live in Roberto Devereux at La Fenice in the eighties. She was as perfect as always. La Devia’s voice is the nearest to Caballé’s on today’s opera stages. And she certainly doesn’t disappoint. Devia brings to the role both more preoccupation and more authority. Both those qualities enhance the character of the queen, both the historical person and Donizetti’s concept of her.
Whispers in the corridors of the Teatro Massimo were suggesting that La Devia ought to be invited to repeat her triumph in Norma in a coming season. Fingers crossed. I’d be willing to rig the Casting Director’s roulette board if that would help.