The Chelsea Opera Group leaves us in no doubt as to the brilliance of Donizetti’s still underrated masterpiece.
Although they are not exactly rarities, the ‘Three Donizetti Queens’, as the composer’s trio of operas about 16th century figures is collectively known, do not appear anywhere near as frequently as Lucia di Lammermoor, L’elisir d’amore or La fille du régiment. One of the delights of the first lockdown in 2020 was getting to experience them on consecutive days when the Metropolitan Opera streamed its respective productions, but performances in London have been far from plentiful. The Royal Opera may have staged Maria Stuarda in 2014 with Joyce DiDonato, but neither it nor English National Opera have presented Anna Bolena or Roberto Devereux in at least a decade, although Opera Holland Park delivered a highly memorable production of the latter in 2009. In fact, the greatest champion of the works in the United Kingdom over recent years may well be Welsh National Opera who presented all three of them in 2013.
If this already seems a shame since there is a strong argument that they stand among Donizetti’s greatest operatic creations, the Chelsea Opera Group’s concert performance of Roberto Devereux could only make us lament the fact even more by presenting this outstanding work at something close to its very best. Donizetti’s creation, with a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano after François Ancelot’s tragedy Elisabeth d’Angleterre (1829), plays fast and loose with historical facts, and incorporates a romantic legend concerning a ring that was supposedly given to Essex by the Queen. While in real life Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex was executed in 1601 for attempting to lead a rebellion against the government of Elizabeth I, here that event forms a backdrop to the drama but is not the critical factor in seeing him die. Rather, the Queen would be prepared to grant him his freedom only he refuses to name his secret lover (actually, Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham), which angers her because she loves him herself.
This performance by the Chelsea Opera Group was nothing short of thrilling, as it featured singers and players on top form, who in the intimate Cadogan Hall could generate a truly overwhelming experience. The orchestra, under the baton of Gary Matthewman, was shatteringly good from the outset as it attacked each of the two-note ‘punches’ that begin the piece, before handing the short lines that lie between these just the right level of intrigue. By the time the audience had heard the first wind rendition of the ‘National Anthem’, it was in no doubt that it was in for something special, and so it proved as throughout the evening the drama and excitement brought to the score were matched by equal levels of clarity and precision.
The extremely strong cast was headed by Eleazar Rodriguez who, time and again, made his experience in the title role tell. His tenor was possessed of both warmth and a sense of lightness so that he could make his lines feel both pure and expansive, while his relatively low notes were possessed of considerable depth. He has played the part in fully staged productions, but here succeeded in adjusting his acting style so that his many arm gestures suited the concert setup.
“This performance by the Chelsea Opera Group was nothing short of thrilling…”
Helena Dix was a revelation as Elisabetta, with her impassioned singing seeing her scale every height imaginable, underscored as it was by superlative technique. She also threw herself completely into the part and at the end when the Queen is heartbroken at Devereux’s death and longs for her own, she succeeded in tinging her sense of overwhelming sorrow with just a hint of blithe madness.
Catherine Carby was an extremely accomplished Sara, Duchessa di Nottingham with the sumptuousness in her voice being complemented by absolute precision in phrasing, while Julien Van Mellaerts proved a highly effective Duca di Nottingham as he asserted his secure and pleasing baritone to excellent effect. There was also excellent support from Steven Aviss as Lord Cecil, James Platt as Sir Gualtiero Raleigh and Edward Jowle as Un Paggio and Un Famigliare di Nottingham. The latter also sang in the chorus, which, directed by Lindsay Bramley, also shone throughout the evening.
The performance was dedicated to Andrew Greenwood who was to have conducted the opera when it was originally planned, but sadly died in January. 2020 marked the 70th anniversary of the Chelsea Opera Group, but COVID-19 meant that any festivities had to be put on hold. This presentation of Roberto Devereux, however, proved a fitting way to celebrate 71 years by being so extraordinary in its own right, and encapsulating all that the company has achieved since time and again it has proved it can deliver performances of a very high standard.
The Chelsea Opera Group will perform Verdi’s Oberto on 3 April 2022 and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice on 29 October 2022, both at Cadogan Hall. For full details of all of the company’s future events, visit the designated website.