Opera Review: ROBERTO DEVEREUX (LA Opera)

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by Monya De on February 26, 2020

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


It was the middle-child opera of the season; not like the world-premiere Eurydice or the must-see Ring Cycle. Roberto Devereux is a lesser-known Donizetti confection, and erstwhile Artistic Director Plácido Domingo was set to hot-ticket this tale of Queen Elizabeth and her lover Essex that likely hasn’t been an opera question on Jeopardy!

Except for #MeToo. In late 2019, after being accused of sexual harassment, Domingo was relieved of his duty as the future operatic Duke of Nottingham at LA Opera, following getting yanked off Macbeth at the Metropolitan Opera at dress rehearsal (a bold move by Met director Yannick Nézet-Séguin).

Replacing Domingo should have been the most jarring thing that happened to this production, but as it happens, queens and sopranos alike get sick: Davinia Rodriguez pulled out of the production days before curtain, replaced by Angela Meade, American bel canto star. (Although a point of argument, “bel canto” refers to a singing style that favors beauty of the melodic line, meaning the more one can hide the shift to a different register and embellish with virtuosic runs, the better). No pressure. LA Opera CEO Christopher Koelsch stepped out before last Saturday’s February 22 premiere to explain that Meade would be singing off to the side of the stage. Accio soprano!

Unlike the fresh-off-the-plane Meade, opera choreographer and ballerina Nicola Bowie knew the show’s blocking, and essentially mimed and interpretive-danced Queen Elizabeth in full costume as Meade sang. This Elizabeth is aged, leaning on a cane, somewhat insecure, and the white makeup is so mime-like that Bowie gesturing silently while Meade sang actually worked incredibly well. And with the appropriately scary and far more age-appropriate Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey as the cuckolded Duke of Nottingham, Domingo was not missed.

Mezzo-sopranos Ashley Dixon and Raehann Bryce-Davis (March 8 & 14) will share the role of Devereux’s beloved, Sara. They replace Alice Coote, who withdrew for family reasons.

Roberto Devereux is one of Donizetti’s many operas about the Tudor period — an Italian outsider’s view of the goings-on at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. While the real goings-on were probably fairly stiff-upper-lip, Donizetti decides that it’s his party and he’ll have drama if he wants to.

The plot? A love triangle. Queen Elizabeth receives Devereux, a lover who’s been off fighting (and losing) and playing army deserter by returning to England. Smitten Liz is willing to overlook the AWOL situation, but realizes that Devereux may have eyes for someone else. Unfortunately, it’s Sara, her own Duchess of Nottingham, who married the Duke on orders from Elizabeth. This revelation is poignant, and I thought conductor Eun Sun Kim could have lingered on it longer for dramatic effect. Dixon has a delicate voice and unleashes her full power to great effect later at the end of the scene.

Elizabeth’s court takes place in Benoit Dugardyn‘s beautifully rendered replica of Shakespeare’s Globe, while Ingeborg Berneth‘s costumes are appropriately sumptuous — with the exception of Sara, who looks not unlike Belle from Beauty and the Beast. A scene with Elizabeth’s removed wig displayed on a table carries a particular gravity; is she maintaining a façade of being loved, too?

As Devereux, Mexican Tenor Ramón Vargas is a great and physical actor and expressive tenor; he almost doesn’t need subtitles when he’s singing the equivalent of “C’mon, baby” to Sara. The music itself is delightful. I could see Kim’s delicate hands as she led the orchestra with precision and restraint.

This Canadian Opera Company production is oddly paced by director Stephen Lawless, with long non-intermission breaks during which the stage is obscured with a tapestry-like curtain. The next plot point is projected on the curtain, and scene changes are made. The production would be even better if these transitions were quicker.

But the reason you will buy a ticket is Meade, the unexpected gift Los Angeles deserves after the roiling blow of finding out about our famous opera director’s inappropriate behavior. She is elegant, thrilling, and makes Elizabeth a force to be reckoned with. Combined with Bowie’s sensitive acting, Elizabeth is made a fully realized, complicated character, lashing out, vulnerable, decisive, indecisive, struggling with morality and facts … or are they alternative facts? The ring she gave Roberto serves as a totem, a concrete object she desires to set her universe right, like the spinning top in the Christopher Nolan film Inception.

At the performance, a soprano sitting by me remembered, “I was at the Met … and someone told me, “Never be in a room alone with Plácido … You’re his type.”

Out with the old and in with the new.

photos by Cory Weaver and Karen Almond

Roberto Devereux
LA Opera
a Canadian Opera Company production
originally owned by The Dallas Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 North Grand Ave.
ends on March 14, 2020
for tickets, call 213. 972.8001 or visit LA Opera

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