Roberto Devereux

OA-Roberto-DevereuxWhen carefully chosen, it’s surprising how satisfying a concert version of an opera can be. This production of Roberto Devereux was an excellent example.

Opera Australia had already presented two of the Donizetti Tudor trilogy, Anna Bolena in 2019, and a concert version of Maria Stuarda in 2022. These performances of Roberto Devereux complete the trio.

Loosely based on the true story of the 2nd Earl of Essex who served in the court of Queen Elizabeth 1, the opera’s turgid plot revolves around a passionate love triangle involving Elisabetta, Roberto and Sara.

Quite popular at the time it was written, Roberto Devereux is now rarely performed, except as a vehicle for celebrity bel canto sopranos. Think Montserrat Caballe, Beverly Sills, Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland.

Now add Roberta Mantegna who dazzled Sydney audiences with the strength and power of her voice as well as her vocal artistry when she made her Australian debut as Elisabetta in this concert version of Roberto Devereux.

A protégé of Renata Scotto, Mantegna has been attracting attention for her mastery of the bel canto repertoire, having made her debut in the title roles of Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda.

Having already sung the role of Elisabetta with Washington Concert Opera, Mantegna mesmerised with the passion of her interpretation, and the power of a voice which thrillingly rose above the full forces of the Opera Australia chorus and orchestra effortlessly filling the Joan Sutherland Theatre.

However Mantegna’s was not the only great voice in this cast. Italian tenor, Valerio Borgioni, who appeared in Opera Australia’s concert production of Maria Stuarda in 2022, played Roberto Devereux, who had the temerity to fall in love with Sara unaware that Elisabetta had a crush on him, and Italian baritone, Giorgio Caoduro, who played Sara’s husband and Roberto’s best friend, the Duke of Nottingham, made up a trio of outstanding Italian bel canto voices.

By no means overshadowed, Jane Ede made an impressive role debut as the unfortunate, Sara. With her cool, elegant voice and demeanour, Ede provided the perfect contrast and match for the dramatics of Mantegna’s Elisabetta.

Iain Henderson (Lord Cecil), Richard Anderson (Sir Walter Raleigh), Clifford Plumpton (Page) and Ryan Sharp (Servant of Nottingham) all made their role debuts in this opera and each acquitted themselves with distinction.

Stripped of lavish staging, this concert version allowed the audience to concentrate on Donizetti’s luxurious score which is rich in passionate melodic lines and powerful, dramatic confrontations. However, the use of surtitles and Andy Morton’s restrained direction ensured that the storyline was also crystal clear throughout.

Within the formal, elegant setting, with the orchestra off-stage in the orchestra pit, and five music stands arranged across the front of the stage for the soloists, and with both the soloists and chorus costumed in formal evening wear, Morton allowed his soloists the freedom to respond to dramatic situations, while utilising a series of cleverly devised entrances and exits for the large chorus to enhance the drama, add spectacle, and provide a sense of place for each of the scenes.

Striking lighting design by Jason Morphett, particularly in the final scene in which bright downlights suggested Devereux’s prison, was also a feature of the presentation.

The Opera Australia Orchestra, on this occasion conducted by Italian, Andrea Sanguineti, conducting his first Australian performances,  once again delighted with its lush, carefully detailed performance of a score for which the overture titillates by including a gorgeous arrangement of God Save the King among Donizetti’s melodies.

The success of this stunning staging of Donizetti’s opera certainly whets the appetite for the forthcoming concert version later in the year of another rare masterpiece, Ponchielli’s La Gioconda starring Jonas Kaufmann and another starry cast.

Black mark though to the person who made the decision that the program for Roberto Devereux could only be obtained via a QR code on arrival at the Opera House. He/she should have been made spend the interval in the foyers watching frustrated older audience members trying access the program information. A few fluked it, but most gave up in frustration. Not a good look for a major opera company,

Full marks however, to whoever arranged for some printed sheets containing cast information to be handed out at interval, even those these quickly ran out.

Roberto Devereux
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Thursday 16 March 2023
Season: 16 & 18 March 2023

Image: Roberto Devereux – courtesy of Opera Australia

Review: Bill Stephens OAM