Review: The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Papian, Costello in Lawless’ Dallas Opera’s “Roberto Devereux” – January 23, 2009

The Dallas Opera, in its final season before the opening of the new Winspear Opera House, has mounted a vibrant new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux”, with an international cast of the first rank.

Those fortunate enough to be present at one of the four scheduled performances will experience a revival of one of the most worthy operas of the first half of the nineteenth century, about Queen Elizabeth’s obsession with the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, presented in an always interesting, highly theatrical treatment. The dramatic coloratura soprano Hasmik Papian (Queen Elizabeth) and leggiero tenor Stephen Costello (Roberto Devereux) are the principal singers.

A new production’s larger significance

Last November, in reviewing Washington National Opera’s production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” I suggested that we were in a second stage of the revival of Donizetti’s great operatic masterpieces, whose first stage began in the last mid-century through the efforts of such sopranos as Maria Callas, Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills and Montserrat Caballe.

The first stage was exemplified by these divas demonstrating the beauty of the major soprano roles. To a considerable extent, that Donizetti revival was a part of a larger bel canto revival, in which the works of Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti seemed to opera audiences to be substantially alike.

The second stage, which I believe is still early in its course, is one in which there is a recognition that Donizetti’s mature works are really quite different from those of Rossini and Bellini (although there is considerable evidence that had Bellini not died in his early 30s he would have competed with Donizetti in producing operas of high dramatic content).

“Roberto Devereux”, like the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and those of the first half of Verdi’s career, employed the two-part aria, whose first part (often a slower cavatina) was succeeded by a more rapid cabaletta to demonstrate a marked change in emotion. Many of the avant-garde among those who produced 19th century opera found this convention to be dated, non-theatrical and perverse, and eventually most of the operas of Donizetti fell out of favor for a century or more.

However, in the contemporary re-examination of Donizetti’s work, it is evident that he had pushed the envelope on these conventional forms. A savvy stage director, portraying characters who exhibit a range of motions (some of whom exhibit manic-depressive behaviors) will find the music can advance their theatrical conception.

Donizetti and Verdi

In my earlier review of the Washington National Opera’s “Lucrezia Borgia”, I suggested parallels between that opera and Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, premiering not quite a decade and a half afterwards. (The late author Julian Budden has led the way in suggesting the influence of the former on the latter.) I can also see parallels between Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Verdi’s “La Traviata”, with long passages of pathos and lyricism reflecting that the women of their titles suffer from fatal illnesses, the former mental, the latter physical.

I am prepared to propose a third pairing of a Verdi “middle period” opera with one of Donizetti, the former’s “Il Trovatore” with the latter’s “Roberto Devereux”. Although “Roberto’s” plot has fewer backstories than “Trovatore’s” and the Troubadour mingles with classes other than those of “Roberto’s” ruling elite, both operas take passion into hyperdrive.

In Washington, DC, stage director John Pascoe displayed his particular solutions to the riddle of making “Lucrezia Borgia” dramatically viable. See: The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008 In Dallas, British stage director Stephen Lawless brought his great skill to unlocking the inner drama in “Roberto Devereux”.

There is relationship between “Roberto” and “Trovatore” beyond the passionate emotion underlying both works. Both of their libretti were conceived by the great operatic dramatist Salvatore Cammarano, whose collaborations with Donizetti included “Lucia di Lammermoor”. (Some authorities believe that the plot complications of “Trovatore” were the result of Cammarano’s death before the opera was completed, although I argue that the frequent recitation of backstories gives us all of the information about past events that we really need and that all the events  of the opera proper logically flow one into the other.)

The Tudor Trilogy

The Dallas Opera had invited Lawless and his architecturally-trained colleague, Belgian set designer Benoit Dugardyn, to conceptualize a trio of productions of the three Donizetti operas – “Anna Bolena”, “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux” – that in recent decades have come to be known as “The Tudor Trilogy”. Even though all three operas have been presented in the past as a “trilogy” – most famously by the New York City Opera for Beverly Sills – utilizing similar set designs for each opera – no particular effort was made to suggest dramatic connections between the three operas.

I suspect that if one were to elicit a list of interconnections, that one obvious list entry would be that each of the historical figures who inspire the title role of each opera – Ann Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex – was beheaded, in each case at the command of the reigning Tudor sovereign, Henry VIII or his daughter, Elizabeth I.

[Below: Queen Elizabeth (Hasmik Papian) is torn between the affairs of state and the affairs of the heart, a scene from Benoit Dugardyn’s sets for “Roberto Devereux”; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

History books tend to emphasize the internal and external political issues that weighed upon the Tudor sovereigns as motivations for their actions. The popular media (all of these characters being well represented on both the American screen and British television) seek a story-line in the interpersonal conflicts and affairs of the historical characters – when needed for dramatic effect, often incorporating the myths and unsubstantiated gossip that have come down through time about the characters.

Nineteenth century Italian opera, though, particularly that of the kind that Donizetti and Verdi produced, is quite a different matter. These operatic works relate a story through a succession of emotional outbursts – set to music of different moods – by a soloist or combination of singers, with or without the accompaniment of a chorus. The long tradition of operatic performance had been to provide opportunities to show the virtuosity of highly skilled singers, with the interesting context of these opportunities being stitched together to portray a story from classical mythology or some other familiar source.

Arguably, it was Donizetti (and I am one who makes this argument) among the 19th century Italians that first successfully rebelled against the old operatic forms in order to produce stories that were theatrically interesting, while still permitting abundant opportunities for displaying a singer’s artistry.

There need not be a conflict between the goals of presenting an opera as absorbing theater and as a vehicle for displaying the virtuosity of the principal singers, but, of course, there can be.  One who experienced the Donizetti revival, first stage, can recall opera performances that were little more than concert performances in costume.

The singers did not stand at podiums that held their vocal scores. They moved about the stage interacting with one another, but, for a considerable part of the time it was “stand and sing”. (I saw a performance of “Roberto Devereux” in San Francisco (1979) in which phlebitis-plagued Montserrat Caballe “sat and sang”.)

Stage director Lawless is hardly a “stand and sing” director. His principals crouch and sing, slink down staircases and sing, crawl along the floor and sing. But before discussing the details of the stage direction, it is best to address the ideas that infuse this “Devereux” and the Lawless Tudor Trilogy as well.

Perhaps the overriding idea is that there exists a common denominator in the three operas, the historical Queen Elizabeth I, or, perhaps closer to the mark, the Queen Elizabeth I of legend.  Of course, sticklers for detail will note that Elizabeth neither appears nor is referred to in “Anna Bolena” at all, that she is only the seconda donna in “Maria Stuarda” and yields the title role of the opera in which her part truly dominates to the Earl of Essex. But Lawless’ theatrical instincts – that Elizabeth I’s psyche binds the three operas – seems warranted when we see the results of his work.

The second idea is based on the fact that Elizabeth I gives the name to the style of theatrical performance that was popular in the London of her reign. Elizabethan Theater is particularly associated with the institution of the Old Globe Theater. Therefore, set designer Benoit Dugardyn developed a stage design for both “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux” (which will be carried over to the future “Anna Bolena”), meant to evoke the Globe.

[Below: the Benoit Dugardyn sets for “Maria Stuarda”, whose motive is carried over to the similar sets for “Robert Devereux”; edited image, based on a photograph provided the The Dallas Opera.]

The Bard’s plays are associated with the Old Globe. His history plays are no guide to the documented history of the British kings, but are psychological dramas that weave together facts and fictions about a group of them, with even less regard for historical accuracy than the contemporary docudramas that are produced for television.

In an earlier review of the Lawless and Dugardyn “Trovatore” collaboration, seen by this reviewer at the San Diego Opera. (See: Nicely Done “Il Trovatore” in Verdi-Friendly San Diego – April 4, 2007), I was impressed at how they mixed theatricality with borderline surreality while enhancing rather than departing from the opera’s storyline.  It seemed a propitious team to make the less entangled relationships of “Roberto” interesting to contemporary audiences.

Thus, Lawless and Dugardyn invent a setting in which Donizetti’s “docu-operas”, whose scenes abound in fanciful situations, are presented as psychological dramas, with homage to the Bard’s “history plays”.

Bidding Farewell to Fair Park

The new production of “Roberto Devereux” is the final new production to take place in the Dallas Music Hall, the venerable Fair Park theater located a few hundred yards or so from the Cotton Bowl. The 52 year old Dallas Opera is proud that it has hosted the American debuts of a “who’s who” of great singers – including Teresa Berganza, Montserrat Caballe, Placido Domingo, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Magda Olivero and Jon Vickers – and likewise the debuts of stage directors John Copley, Franco Zeffirelli and David McVicar, as well as the director/designer team of Lawless and Dugardyn. Next season the Dallas Opera moves to the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, which is being built for it.

Notes on the Performance

When the house curtains are raised, we see the circular Globe – the “Wooden O” of the Bard’s “Henry V” – at the edges, but our view of center stage is obscured by a large representation of a red tapestry, intricately bordered in gold and red. As the red tapestry rises, we hit the ground running with “Roberto’s” rousing overture, impressively conducted by Graeme Jenkins, whose earliest passages include variations on the music to “God Save the Queen”.

Movement can be seen on every level of the sets. There are basically four stages, the three levels of the Globe and the center stage. During the overture, not only chorus members, but principals wander around the upper stages. Queen Elizabeth (Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian), as she will through much of the opera, appears in center stage.

Concurrently, tableaux from the life of Elizabeth are shown. At the back of the stage we see three wheeled display cases, larger sizes of the kind created for showing dolls – one with an actor portraying Henry VIII, one with his wife Anne Boleyn, and between them, one with the child of their marriage, the young Elizabeth. The child is clearly traumatized by the savage battles of her parents that lead to her mother’s execution.

When the spirited theme is first heard, that aficionados recognize is the cabaletta Bagnato il sen di lagrime that the condemned Roberto Devereux (Stephen Costello) sings in the Tower Scene towards the end of the opera, Costello appears, leaning on the railing of the Globe’s second level as Papian takes his measure. Two of the men who will bring charges against him, Lord Cecil (Scott Quinn) and Sir Walter Raleigh (Andrew Oakden), also wander around the set’s multiple levels.

Then, taking one of the more outlandish of the Elizabethan myths – that she took part in a play written by William Shakespeare (a man for whom there is no documentation that the Queen, or for that matter, any other person known to history actually observed him writing, publishing, producing or performing any of the Bard’s plays.)

[Below: Roberto Devereux (Stephen Costello, left) fails to comfort a distraught Queen Elizabeth I (Hasmik Papian, right); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

But for this fantasy, Shakespeare steps out of a Merry Wives laundry basket and joins Papian’s Queen in the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” scene of the Fairy Queen’s romance with Bottom who has turned into an Ass. (One might note that Texas’ other major opera company, the Houston Grand Opera, was debuting its new production of Britten’s “Midummer Night’s Dream”, which contains the Tytania-Bottom scene, on the same winter’s evening.)

As the overture concludes, models of English and Spanish warships sail onto the front of the stage to depict the historical event that “turned the world upside down” and vastly increased the Queen’s prestige and power – the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

The opera proper begins with a chorus, who, with choreographed hand gestures, expresses it concern for the melancholia of Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham (Elizabeth Batton). As in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”, a principal character (Sara) is introduced reading a book whose subject matter presages the plot of the opera – Tristano and Isotta’s love potion in the romantic comedy, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine’s jealousy of her rival, Rosamund Clifford, in “Roberto”.

Soon we become absorbed in the emotions of the Queen, played with ever increasing torment and fervor by Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian. It has been over seven years since I last saw Papian, who, at San Francisco Opera, was Olimpia, Queen of Armenia, in Chudhadjian’s “Arshak II”, notable as much for the staging that had her suspended in mid-air for long periods of time as for a voice of great beauty and promise.

The San Francisco Opera production was the world premiere of a mid-19th century opera by an Armenian composer, whose libretto was in Italian, but for these performances was, on the commission of San Francisco Opera, translated into Armenian.

I was scheduled to see the second and third performances, but, the second performance was September 11, 2001 and the opera house closed that evening because of the disasters of that day in New York City, Washington DC and Southern Pennsylvania. In the ensuing years, the promising voice heard portraying the Queen of Armenia has become a large, highly dramatic voice portraying the Queen of England.

The Opera’s Four Principals

The Dallas Opera has cast a foursome which fully exploits both the vocal and histrionic possibilities of the opera. Papian, as inferred above, is a sensational Elizabeth – a part whose range leaps between low notes and the higher parts of a soprano’s range. Those who might wonder how Verdi came up with the idea of the vocal showpieces assigned to Abigaille in his “Nabucco” and Giselda in his “I Lombardi” need only peruse the part of the Queen in the score of “Roberto Devereux”.

Costello’s Roberto is even further proof of what a talented group of leggiero tenors may be found performing internationally. His was a vocally brilliant, smoldering performance – one that drew energy from Lawless’ very physical, intensely emotional directing. His duets with Sara, with Nottingham, and the Queen were memorable, exuding anguish, anger, grief, ardour, fear, among the emotions that Cammarano and Donizetti have written into his part.

One of the opera’s supreme moments is the first scene between the Queen and Roberto, culminating in the double duet Un tenero core with its bravura cabaletta Un lampo, un lampo orribile. Their tandem cabaletta ascends heights of dramatic coloratura frenzy, and it is only one of several high-flying vocal showpieces in the opera.

[Below: Stephen Costello is Roberto Devereux and Hasmik Papian is Queen Elizabeth I; edited image, based on Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Roberto’s duets with Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham (Elizabeth Batton) were filled with attractively sung melodies of great beauty, the kind of music one associates with the operas of Bellini and the gentler piano works of Chopin, as befits a couple in love but forever separated by circumstance.

Unfortunately, Sara makes a point of his continuing to wear the Queen’s ring, and, in one of the worst bargains in all of opera, he decides to give it to Sara in exchange for a souvenir of her – a scarf that her husband, the Duke, has seen her embroidering.

The Queen has promised Roberto that he will be saved from any harm if he sends his ring back to her at an hour of need, but she also insists that there be no rival for her affection. The trade assures that he will have an incriminating item in his possession and will lack what he needs to save himself when his enemies arrest him.

[Below: What’s the worst that can happen? Roberto Devereux, Earl of Essex (Stephen Costello) trades the Queen’s Ring that would save his life for a scarf from Sara, Duchess of Nottingham (Elizabeth Batton), that will assure his condemnation to death; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

But Costello’s moment of greatest glory was in the “Tower Scene” in which Roberto, expecting that he will be saved through the device of Sara delivering the Queen’s ring to her that will assure Roberto’s pardon, comes to realize that he, in fact, will be beheaded.

The cabaletta of his great double aria has a repeat that is usually cut (although to me the cut seems ill-advised), but Conductor Jenkins allowed Costello to sing the uncut version, which Costello did gloriously, including the addition of vocal embellishments in the second verse.

[Below: Stephen Costello as Roberto Devereux, the Earl of Essex, awaiting execution in the Tower of London; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

(My continued advice to the world’s fraternity of great contemporary leggiero tenors, many, Costello included, sought after by operatic managements, is to explore the roles written for the great tenors of Donizetti’s era and persuade opera companies to revive the best of these roles for them, whether or not they contain roles that are high priorities of the world’s bel canto prima donnas.)

The opera contains one of the great baritone roles of the bel canto era, the Duke of Nottingham. David Kempster proved to be an exemplary Duke, with a sonorous voice and praiseworthy acting skills, valuable for Lawless’ complex stage direction. Kempster’s Nottingham, who begins as Roberto’s friend and ends as his sworn enemy, has much to do in this opera – most notably, anchoring the “double trio” between himself, Papian’s Elizabeth and Costello’s Roberto which extends through the latter part of the second act.

[Below: David Kempster is the Duke of Nottingham; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

There is no part of the opera that one could dismiss as subpar, but there are several sections that I regard as the highlights of this work – the lively overture, the duet between Roberto and the Queen, the trio between the Queen, Nottingham and Roberto, and the Tower scene. But wait, there’s more!

Neither Donizetti nor Lawless would let audiences go home without a closer. The final scene begins when Sara reveals to the Queen too late that she was holding the Ring that would have saved Roberto. At this, the Queen flies into a final rage, then expresses her resignation to Roberto’s fate and her desire that the reign of King James I begin. Her final aria, which leaps across octaves, is a Donizetti masterpiece. As Papian ends the aria, banners are unfurled heralding the coming of the Stuarts and the curtain falls.

What is the future of the “Tudor Trilogy” in the United States? The New York City Opera sets that Beverly Sills strode in both New York City and in NYCO’s Los Angeles seasons in the 1970s and 1980s still exist, and, indeed, were restored effectively for San Diego Opera’s “Maria Stuarda”, reviewed on this website (See: Jaho, Aldrich Triumph in San Diego “Maria Stuarda” – February 16, 2008). In fact, the San Diego “Stuarda” used Dallas’ costumes (for practical reasons, but, in the process melding elements of the two notable American Tudor Trilogy productions).

As this reviewer continues to confirm month after month, the world now has the greatest number of artists that have ever performed contemporaneously that have the voices and technique to sing the bel canto roles (and, like Stephen Costello, the lyric roles of the 19th century French repertory).

Conceiving and mounting theatrical productions such as this “Roberto Devereux” Washington National Opera’s “Lucrezia Borgia” are exactly what is needed to restore the reputations of these great works with opera audiences. Renewing interest in these neglected masterpieces will build opportunities for the current group of bel canto artists to display their vocal and histrionic abilities.

One final note: the comprimario artists, singing the smaller roles are excellent in Dallas as in so many opera houses in the United States. I was impressed with Andrew Oakden in the small role of Sir Walter Raleigh. Keron Jackson, having only a few lines as Nottingham’s Servant, attracted one’s attention as one who should be heard in a longer role. Scott Quinn did a fine job as Lord Cecil.

[Below: Hasmik Papian is Queen Elizabeth, surrounded by her ladies in waiting, devastated at having to order the Earl’s execution; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Ultimately, “Roberto Devereux” is dominated by the personality of the Queen. An artist able to assay the role’s vocal fireworks, with the ability to project the multiple facets of our image of one of history’s most fascinating women, will command the greatest ovations of all at the opera’s end. That is what greeted Hasmik Papian in Dallas.

[Below: Hasmik Papian as Queen Elizabeth, donning crown, robe, orb and scepter to pronounce judgment on the Earl of Essex, edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Comments on this review, and the opinions on this website on the operas of Donizetti (or any other communication) are welcomed at [email protected]. Some letters will be posted in a later update on correspondence received.