Yesterday afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House to experience the San Francisco Opera (SFO) production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux for a second time. Readers may recall that, while the imaginative staging of Stephen Lawless did much to sustain the dramatic impact of this opera, I felt that, on opening night, the bel canto core of the musical performance left much to be desired. On that occasion my positive thoughts were limited to the solid account of Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, by mezzo Jamie Barton, while my greatest disappointment was with Sandra Radvanovsky in the role of Elizabeth I. I was also concerned about conductor Riccardo Frizza but added a disclaimer that some of the problems may have had more to do with Donizetti than with Frizza or any of the performers on stage.
Yesterday afternoon was far more satisfying, particularly where Radvanovsky was concerned. This led me to entertain another hypothesis about my first experience, which was that, in many ways, Lawless was the driving force behind the whole production. He establishes Elizabeth’s presence from the very beginning of the overture, with extended mime work of the aged queen providing a visual context for the historical background provided through the projected titles. Even before singing her first notes, Radvanovsky had to establish a solid sense of Elizabeth’s character; and Lawless’ staging involved an abundance of physical traits and gestures through which that character was sustained through the conclusion of the narrative with the succession of James I to the throne of England.
With such a dramatic burden to bear, it should not have been surprising that, on opening night, Radvanovsky had a lot on her mind. Doing justice to the virtually acrobatic demands that Donizetti imposed on her role while honoring every last physical movement specified by Lawless must have been quite a burden. (The old joke about chewing gum while walking downstairs comes to mind, rather at a personal level right now, since I have to negotiate stairs with crutches!) At yesterday afternoon’s performance, the fifth of six, she seemed more settled into both the dramatic and musical requirements. As a result her vocal work was far more confident, particularly when she had to take on the excesses of the many cadenzas Donizetti had written into her part.
Indeed, when it comes to responsibility to the music as a whole, I would now say that blame for negligence should be laid solidly on Donizetti, while Frizza should be given the musical equivalent of a Purple Heart for making the best of a difficult situation. As I previously observed, bel canto is only “bel” when the vocalist can provide solid accounts of pitch, phrasing, and balance with both the orchestra and, when necessary, the other vocalists. On opening night almost all of my satisfaction came from Barton and her duo work with Russell Thomas in the title role, the Earl of Essex. However, from the vantage point of my subscription seat, I was in a better position to observe Frizza’s work in the orchestra pit and could better appreciate how Donizetti had given him a tough nut to crack.
Of those “three qualities of bel,” pitch is the most critical, particularly in cadenza passages in which the pitches change at a breakneck pace. Now, whatever anyone may try to tell you about “perfect pitch,” in any performance that is not a bare-bones solo, relative pitch is all that matters. While this may be most evident in chamber music performances, where, for example, a string quartet is at its most convincing when every player is acutely aware of what every other player is doing, what we might call “awareness of pitch context” is always important, regardless of how many resources are involved.
Listening to the SFO Orchestra while watching Frizza at work, I was struck by how little attention Donizetti was giving to such awareness of pitch context in his score. (This was why Thomas was at his best on opening night when singing with Barton. He could establish more pitch context from her than from any of Donizetti’s instrumental writing.) Ultimately, it was no surprise that a problem that pervades the opera’s entire score had not found adequate solution on opening night (and I cannot begin to guess how many performances were required before all the vocalists had “found their footing”).
This brings to mind my favorite story about Giuseppe Verdi (which I think I picked up from Jodi Levitz, back when she was teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music). It would appear that Verdi was fond of using the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven for bedtime reading. He even had a special place for them on the table at his bedside. There are no end of stories about quartet musicians having pitch context problems when first trying to play Beethoven quartets, stories that go back at least as far as the so-called “middle” quartets, with the problems getting more and more serious as one advances into the “late” quartets. Yesterday afternoon, it occurred to me that it was by studying Beethoven that Verdi honed his own skills at providing his singers with not only impeccable voice-leading but also pitch context so well-established that they could focus on the drama as much as the music. Apparently Donizetti did not have such an encounter with Beethoven in his youth or in his maturity!
With the musical foundations so much better established yesterday, I also had the opportunity to take in more of the “secondary” aspects, both dramatic and musical. I was particularly drawn to the vocal exchanges between Sara and her husband (sung by Adler Fellow baritone Andrew Manea). Lawless conceived this as a more down-to-earth encounter with a conflicted relationship, contrasting sharply with the intense interplay between Elizabeth and Essex. I also enjoyed watching Lord Cecil (tenor Scott Quinn, filling in for an ailing Amitai Pati) strong-arming individual members of Parliament to approve the beheading of Essex. (It was hard to avoid thinking about such legislative tactics in our own government!)
For those unfamiliar with the opera’s narrative, Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh (baritone Christian Pursell) are the two influential forces against Essex. Once Essex’ fate has been sealed, we see each of them standing with smug satisfaction on either side of the stage. Cecil has a full cup of wine. Raleigh is smoking a long clay pipe. Why shouldn’t he have been doing so? He was the man who brought tobacco to England! It was Lawless’ attention to such minor details that gave the overall narrative a sense of underlying reality, rather than merely a costume drama.
An amusing reference to Shakespeare during the overture for Roberto Devereux (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)
The other memorable tidbit came during the “historical” interpretation of the music for the overture. The titles remind viewers that the era of Elizabeth I was also the era of William Shakespeare. So, on the stage, we see a brief excerpt from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Elizabeth in the role of Titania and Shakespeare himself playing Bottom (complete with transformed head). This had absolutely nothing to do with Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto, but it was an amusing way to establish context for a dark narrative.