I approached the evening thinking that Donizetti’s rarely performed opera, Roberto Devereux, would be the perfect opener for Opera Holland Park’s 2009 season. And I emerged feeling that it most certainly was, though for different reasons to those I’d imagined.
I had assumed that Roberto Devereux, directed here by Lindsay Posner, would be comparable in general light-heartedness to Donizetti’s La fille du régiment and L’elisir d’amore, hence providing the perfect entertainment for a long, balmy summer’s evening in the park.
But it is actually quite different. At its heart is the story of the execution of the Earl of Essex (Roberto Devereux) by Elizabeth I (Elisabetta) in 1601. Applying some poetic licence to the historical facts, it sees Elisebetta execute him, not for rebelling, but because he clearly loves another.
Donizetti, however, constructs the music so cleverly that it frequently possesses a joyful edge that masks the true horror of the events unfolding before our eyes (witness the opening sinfonia which features a rendition of the national anthem!). In this way, the gravity of the situation only hits us from behind a curtain of playfulness, thus making the opera a deeply multi-layered affair. The consequence is an evening that grants us all the exuberance that we crave from Opera Holland Park, but also a more profound experience than we might have expected.
Peter McKintosh’s set, depicting a palace interior, was not as innovative as I had anticipated, but by adding just a single portico to the real buildings that already stood there, it helped the singers feel a natural affinity with the large, spacious performance area that they occupied. Similarly, though Adam Cooper’s choreography felt a little sedate at times, it contributed a certain tension to the proceedings as, at the start, he introduced more and more characters to the stage until the very air felt like it would buckle under the weight of them all.
As Elisabetta, Majella Cullagh’s thick and effective voice combined a sense of vulnerability that might be felt by any woman who suspected that her ‘chosen one’ loved another, with a keen understanding of the power that her position allowed her to wield. As the drama unfolded, we learned just what a deadly combination this was for both Devereux and Elisabetta herself, who had to suffer the consequences of killing her desired lover.
Yvonne Howard as Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, cut a lonely figure as she sang so intensely of her love for Roberto at the start, her voice trembling in lament. As Devereux, Leonardo Capalbo, with his dark hair and brilliantly light voice, was suitably dashing, and it was interesting to compare the relative levels of ease with which he interacted with Elisabetta, who held power of life and death over him, and Sara, the lady he really loved. Julian Hubbard was also an effective Duke of Nottingham, whilst the beautifully made costumes enabled us to recognise instantly such historical figures as Lord Cecil and Walter Raleigh.
But perhaps the greatest delight was witnessing Richard Bonygne wielding his baton. Demonstrating a general air of ease (but levels of energy that one might have expected from someone fifty years his junior) he extracted an incredibly sharp and precise sound from the City of London Sinfonia in the virtual outdoors. It left me wondering whether the primary reason for recommending this production is the playing in the pit, the prowess demonstrated on stage, or the simple fact that the opera is unlikely to be found again in London for a very long time.