Friday, June 6, 2014
OONY Roberto Devereux
This Event was kind of put together in a slapdash way -- OONY used to have subscriptions with a loyal fan-base. Over the years, funds seem to have dried up, and there wasn't even the obligatory New York Times publicity interview for this performance. Kind of sad. In fact, the program even said that the appearance fee of several singers were taken care of through "anonymous donors."
I had never heard Mariella Devia in person until tonight. By the time I started going to opera regularly, she was sort of a distant relic. I heard she was doing great things in Europe, and occasionally I got to view a video, but I sort of gave up hope of ever hearing her in person. And when she made her appearance, I thought that she, well, looked like a sixty-something grandma type. Many divas of a certain age will acquire a kind of embalmed grandeur, usually through the miracles of wigs, makeup, voluminous gowns, and Norma Desmond-like hauteur. Mariella just scampered onstage, score in hand, in a pretty but unassuming green dress and got down to the business of singing.
The core of her voice is still there, which is what makes her remarkable. There was a little bit of a quavery, old-lady sound, and she marked the parts of the score that required her to dip into her lower register. Donizetti's writing isn't really for a lyric coloratura like Devia -- there are parts of the score that almost require a declamatory, chesty mezzo like Dolora Zajick to do it justice. She also seemed to be saving herself for last act. But Devia still has the musical line, the clear diction, the breath control, the sense of momentum as scenes climax in excitement that exemplifies bel canto singing. Trills still there and wonderfully articulated in "Ah! ritorna quel ti spero." "In her final aria "Vivi ingrato"/"Quel sangue versate" she was on fire, and for good measure capped the scena with a high D that had the crowd screaming and stomping in a standing ovation that completely drowned out the last few bars of the opera. Sorry orchestra! Then once the music stopped, the illusion was dropped, and she appeared almost sheepish at the applause. There was no grand diva bow, no milking of applause, she just walked off stage as unassumingly as she had walked onstage.
Devia's supporting cast was variable. It was very appropriate historically -- an aging Queen Elizabeth (she was in her sixties when she met Robert Devereux) surrounded by a group of younger, attractive males. One of the few stains on Queen Elizabeth's reign was that she had a lifelong weakness for good-looking, fawning users. Donizetti's opera really does capture that dynamic well.
In a strange way, the casting also was historically true. Elizabeth was besotted with Robert Devereux, but outsiders wondered what the fuss was about as they saw a slick slimy playboy. The opera industry seems just as besotted with Stephen Costello, but to these eyes and ears he has an unpleasant bleat to his voice, a wooden, awkward, terrified stage expression, does absolutely nothing with the text, and after a promising (if loud and unsubtle) start totally ran out of gas in his final aria. Geraldine Chauvet (Sara) is very pretty, but the mezzo is low-impact and she's one of those singers who constantly sings ever so slightly under the pitch. David Pershall (Nottingham) is cute (see a pattern here?), but seemed to be vying with Costello in a neck-and-neck race in terms of seeming totally disconnected from the text and the drama. John Kapusta's (Cecil) biography says he specializes in "character roles." I can see why. Classic comprimario voice. The best voice was bass Sama Vemic as Raleigh. He's very young, very tall, and also very cute, but the sound that comes out is big and rich.
I really respect Eve Queler for all the work and dedication she's given OONY, but her conducting tonight was strictly of the oompapa chug-along tradition. Also, a couple of the orchestra members were really not appropriately dressed. One violinist was wearing what appeared to be a black t-shirt with overtight black capris. The fact that the singers had their noses buried in their scores suggested a lack of rehearsal time.
The rag-tag feel of the event only added to its appeal, in a weird way. When the Carnegie Hall started screaming in ecstasy for Devia it felt like the very end of an Andy Hardy movie. "Wow we really put on a great show in this barn!"