The three Donizetti queens were never intended as a cycle, but the fact that they represent a historical succession and contain four of Donizetti's most vocally and dramatically formidable female roles gives them a peculiar fascination, and their subjects are of course currently particularly fashionable in this age of Philippa Gregory fever*. The part of Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux is considered by many voice mavens to be the most challenging Bel Canto assoluta role, which is to say nothing less than the most demanding role ever composed for a woman's voice. Every voice will find different things more or less difficult, but in many ways it's hard to disagree with this assessment - the part is a virtual catalogue vocal techniques, requiring a very wide range, the most intricate fioratura, all dispatched with a dramatic vocal weight, and all this for great stretches of time. Most importantly, it goes to greater extremes than any of the contemporaneous bel canto roles in these things. It's the rarest done of the three Queens, so there's a certain morbid fascination and thrill in seeing someone tackle it.
It's very interesting to have a principal female character in an opera who is an older woman. Though a fictionalised piece of history, the action of this opera takes place 1598-160, when Elizabeth would have been between the ages of 65-68. As is to be expected in a role this challenging, it really needs a singer in their prime, and Alexandra Deshortie is not even nearly Elizabeth's true age. To age herself she adopts a very unusual physicality in which her movements are very angular and powerful, her posture stooped, and she has a limp that comes and goes. I found it all a little artificial and couldn't quite buy into it, and I did wonder what inspired it. After seeing the opera I looked for eyewitness reports of the older Queen - contemporary descriptions of her countenance and bearing are surprisingly and brutally honest, but notably comment on her grace and statelyness into her last years, so it's difficult to know where this idea came from.
The central performances were quite strong. Alexandra Deshorties is in the rare position of having the right sort of voice for the role and basically sings the notes with expression, even if it's not the most ingratiating or flexible voice you've ever heard. The role doesn't call particularly for a beautiful sound it has to be said, and Deshorties certainly has her moments of acid and steel, but largely she does a good job musically in an impossible role. Leah-Marian Jones also has a very large voice, and again though it is not timbrally beautiful, she provides a musically very satisfying portrayal of Sarah because she has such an excellent legato and can effect beautiful nuances in the vocal line while maintaining full vocal support - the voice becomes beautiful through her musicianship - something not altogether common. Leonardo Capalbo's vibrato is a little wide at all times for my tastes, but he's definitely a tenor of some vocal accomplishment. I found his portrayal of Roberto hammy and self involved, but that might have been the production. As the Duke of Nottingham David Kempster has one of those rock solid voices where you just know that every single note in the entire opera will be hit without any risk. Some will like unfussy, solid singing like this, and again it's no mean feat to sing this consistently, but I found the timbral palette very narrow and as a result was not that interested in the characterisation. Daniele Rustioni's conducting throughout the evening was decent, certainly better than most of the ROH's recent bel canto offerings, though dramatic tension is never raised above "moderate" and it's difficult to transcend the score's tootling dum-de-dum sections without more urgency.
I'm glad I saw it and enjoyed what I could take from the production, but this was a decidedly odd evening of opera that didn't quite hang together well enough. In other news, the Bristol Hippodrome, just like the Birmingham Hippodrome where I saw the superb Lohengrin last season with the WNO, is an excellent venue for opera with very good acoustics and great sightlines. If only London had venues like this!
*this didn't seem to convert to there being a younger audience on the night I went.
Photos (c) WNO/Tony Nandi