The overture to Gaetano Donizetti's opera Roberto Devereux, about Elizabeth 1 of England, begins, appropriately enough, with a sprightly version of God Save the Queen. Problem is, God Save The Queen wasn't written until about a hundred and fifty years after Elizabeth's death. She never heard it, or of it.
But you don't go to a Donizetti opera for historical accuracy. You go to hear gorgeous singing and vocal athleticism of the highest order. And although it took more than a little while to get itself in gear, the Canadian Opera Company's production of Roberto Devereux eventually delivered those Olympian musical goods in style.
The plot of the opera is as artificial as the use of an anachronistic anthem in the overture. Based very loosely on the career of the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, Donizetti and his librettist Salvatore Cammarano created for the opera a version of the eternal quadrilateral. Elizabeth the Queen loves Robert, the Earl, who loves Sara, Elizabeth's favourite, who is married to Nottingham, Elizabeth's counselor and Devereux's best friend. Eventually, Robert's refusal to renounce Sara will lead to his death, as a jealous Elizabeth refuses to pardon him for treason, despite Nottingham's pleading on his behalf (unaware that his wife and Devereux are a number).
In the hands of a composer like Verdi a generation later, the plot of Roberto Devereux might have been exploited for every drop of its melodramatic power, and while there is drama and passion in Donizetti, everything in his work is subjugated to the ideal of the exquisite, powerful, controlled bel canto aria. This is opera in the guise of sport, with one singer after another attempting the vocal equivalent of an Olympic-stye figure skating routine, with its impossible leaps and twirls, thrilling when executed perfectly, dangerous when not.
Eventually the cast of the COC production of Devereux scored 9 and 10s in their vocal routines, but it took them a little while to get there. Devereux is late-ish Donizetti, and so the score is full of harmonic twists and turns, infrequent in his early work, which make it very difficult to sing. Donizetti also writes long passages where the voice is unsupported by the orchestra, the singers basically performing a capella, immensely tricky to navigate. Perhaps for both these reasons, keeping everything on pitch was a bit of a struggle for the COC cast in places Friday night. Even the great Sondra Radvanovsky, as Elizabeth, seemed to be straining a bit in the first act of the opera; the superb Russell Braun, as Nottingham, tended to be a bit unfocused in his intonation early in the going.
However, both these performers redeemed themselves as the evening wore on. Radvanovsky, especially, sang more and more thrillingly as the production progressed. Her powerful soprano is most exquisite when it is quietest, when she damps it down in an instant from a full-throated double forte to a perfectly controlled , aching pianissimo. Her range is also formidable, and Donizetti challenges his vocalists again and again to move crashingly through the octaves in a roller coaster bar or two. With Elizabeth's final aria, as an unbewigged and desperate Queen comes to terms with the fact that she has sent her lover to his death, Radvanovsky turned a showpiece into a masterful work of emotional art.
Braun also let the drama of his role empower his performance, especially in those scenes with his wife when the full extent of her betrayal seeps into his consciousness. Like Radvanovsky, Braun was at his best when he made you forget the vocal calisthenics involved in his performance, and forced you to concentrate on the passion within. Leonardo Capalbo made a nervous Devereux finally come fully alive in his final dungeon scene in Act 3, one of the highlights of the evening, and Allyson McHardy – Sara – should not come last in this list. She was the one performer who was completely in her role from first note to last, who combined drama and characterization with fine musicality throughout the opera, believable from first scene to last.
Director Stephen Lawless has constructed a clever production of the opera which sets it on the stage of the Globe Theatre and surrounds it with emblems and visual cues of Elizabethan England. The terraces surrounding the stage are used to great advantage by the COC chorus, watching the action as well as participating in it. If the staging is a bit static, eventually the audience gets caught up in the beauty of the music, the taut power of the often thrilling solo performances, and the electric voltage of vocal athleticism and emotional depth meshing in perfect combination.