Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) gave the second performance in the opening weekend of its 96th season, the opening of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. [updated 9/10, 3:30 p.m.: This was only SFO’s second production of the opera (the first having been presented in 1979), staging a new production created for the Canadian Opera Company by Stephen Lawless that was performed in Toronto in 2014.] However, Lawless’ staging dates back to January of 2009 at the Dallas Opera, for which he conceived an integrated approach based on a uniform set for Donizetti’s three Tudor operas, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux.
That set reflected the design of the Globe Theatre; but it also involved museum-like vitrines to situate the historical context. Thus, we begin with a “display” of the figures of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Elizabeth I, while, during the coda of Donizetti’s score, Elizabeth, sung by soprano Sandra Radvanovsky, returns to her vitrine, flanked this time by Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots) and Devereux, both of whom were beheaded on Elizabeth’s orders. This is but one of the ways in which Lawless establishes that the narrative of Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto is more about Elizabeth than about Devereux, Earl of Essex, no surprise since Cammarano’s source was the tragedy Elisabeth d’Angleterre (Elizabeth of England) by the French dramatist François Ancelot.
There was a certain element of irony in the way in which SFO opened its season, since it began with Cav/Pag, a double bill of operas that, as I previously put it, “solidly established themselves as representative of the verismo tradition.” Roberto Devereux, on the other hand, reflects the more romanticized practices of the earlier nineteenth century, thus serving this weekend as the icon that verismo set out to smash. Donizetti was the third of the three Italian composers that established the bel canto tradition that dominated the first half of the nineteenth century, preceded first by Gioachino Rossini and then by Vincenzo Bellini. Like Rossini, Donizetti’s output was prodigious; but, unlike Rossini, Donizetti’s approaches to comedy have been all but forgotten with the exception of Don Pasquale, which he composed relatively late in his career.
The implication of bel canto is that “pretty voices” take priority over everything else, both the overall narrative and the role played by the music in realizing that narrative. Donizetti knew the drill well; and, as a result, there are few moments in the score that compel on the basis of a capacity for invention. It is only slightly extreme to suggest that the fundamental building blocks of any opera, narrative, musical realization of the narrative, and the staging of the narrative, all take a back seat to providing the audience with abundant opportunities to listen to a few key vocalists display (note the vitrine as metaphor) their talents unto an extreme and then respond with roars of approval.
Last night, unfortunately, only one of those vocalists consistently delivered on the “bel” modifier. The role of Sara, Duchess of Nottingham may be dramatically secondary to the fateful relationship between Elizabeth and Essex; but mezzo Jamie Barton delivered a solid account whenever her solo work was in the spotlight. Her sense of pitch was consistently solid and her overall phrasing, always firmly situated in the musical context established by conductor Riccardo Frizza, escalated an otherwise routine account of narrative to something worthy of more attentive focus. As a “team player” her duo work with tenor Russell Thomas in the title role was equally riveting.
Russell Thomas and Jamie Barton in one of their compelling duo moments (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)
Sadly, it was only in those duo situations that Thomas’ vocal talents really shined. On his own, he was less compelling, if not downright uncertain in the shaping of his lines. The greatest disappointment, however, came with soprano Radvanovsky, who, in spite of the opera’s title, was clearly the central character. Radvanovsky’s pitch had a tendency to wander in and out of the notes provided her by the score, and the color of her tone could shift radically from highly polished to downright coarse. Those latter moments may have been intentional for the sake of the drama, but the jolt often seemed to have less to do with the narrative and more with an uncomfortable departure from tessitura.
Some of these problems may have originated in the orchestra pit. Too much of the time Frizza seemed almost disconnected from what was happening on stage. As a result, it may well have been that uncertainties in pitch were the result of a failure to provide the vocalist with clearly defined reference points. This could explain why Thomas was at his best in his duo work with Barton, since, at the very least, they could provide each other with such reference points. In fairness to Frizza, however, at least some of the blame may be traced back to Donizetti, whose attentiveness to the relationship between instruments and vocalists rarely rose above the level of casual.
Ultimately, one needs to appreciate that bel canto was a tactic for drawing audiences that did not last very long. As early as 1843, Richard Wagner was already establishing an approach to a more integrated approach to the theatrical experience with The Flying Dutchman. (For the record, as they say, 1843 was also the year when Don Pasquale was first performed.) Meanwhile, when bel canto was thriving, Honoré de Balzac was already sowing the seeds of verismo with his La Comédie humaine novels. It was only a matter of time until operas would follow that path, which would lead to the Cav/Pag operas that launched the current SFO season.