Donizetti: Roberto Devereux / Rota, Theodossiou, Schroeder, Bragaglia

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Does Devereux absolute justice and is very good value for money.

Roberto Devereux is not one of Donizetti’s more popular operas but the score contains some very beautiful passages. The mood, however, is tragic, sombre and intensely dramatic, possibly reflecting the composer’s grief over the death of his wife, who had passed away one month prior to the completion of the opera. The libretto is by Salvatore Cammarano (1801-1852), after the play “Elisabeth d’Angleterre” by François Ancelot (1794-1854). The work has great power and Donizetti created one of the most striking roles for soprano in the character of Elizabeth I. The vocal line for the Queen effectively illustrates her tortured soul, her rage and her internal conflict; she is deeply in love with a man who is accused of treason, Roberto (of the title), the Earl of Essex. Elizabeth’s characterization is so powerful that it overshadows everything else in the opera, even the part of Roberto and the tender, more lyrical line of the love between him and Sara. It is a star role for a soprano; the singing is demanding and technically difficult, with extreme coloratura requirements, physically exhausting both in musical and dramatic terms. The whole opera rests on the shoulders of the soprano for it is Elizabeth who carries the plot and who ultimately is the real tragic figure. The execution of Roberto and Sara’s grief over his death are sad, cruel moments of intense suffering but it is the tortured mind of the Queen, her lovelorn heart and her final desperation that best illustrate the fragility of human life and the overwhelming pain of losing somebody that one deeply loved. Personally, I think that this was Donizetti’s attempt of coming to terms with his own grief and perhaps, for this reason, the opera is dramatically convincing throughout even though the plot takes many liberties with history.

This 2-CD offer from Naxos was recorded live in 2006, in Bergamo, Donizetti’s home town. The sound is excellent; the emotive, dramatic power of the opera comes across effectively and the performances are genuinely intense and expressive. The work would definitely have benefited, however, if a decision had been made to reduce the amount of applause captured on the discs. I actually enjoy hearing enthusiastic applause in a live recording; it makes the listening experience all the more authentic, but to have it nearly all the time, after an aria, a duet or one of the superb ensembles, is superfluous and slightly distracting. I believe that limiting it to perhaps a couple of the more spectacular arias and the end of each act would have enhanced the listening experience and the impact of the work.

The cast of this production is a distinguished one, formed of singers who are not world famous but nevertheless, very effective and dramatically eloquent. Naxos has also issued this recording on DVD and I would like to watch it, just to admire some of the performances live, as on the CD they appear rather powerful. Dimitra Theodossiou, who plays the Queen, is a Greek soprano, best known in Italy where she has performed in all the major theatres, including La Scala in Milan. Outside Italy, she is a little less known but she has performed various leading roles to critical acclaim in Lisbon, Zurich and Vienna. Her interpretation of Elizabeth I, in this Naxos recording, is effective and powerful, particularly in the final parts of Act III when the Queen becomes emotionally unhinged. Her voice is beautifully dark and expressively tortured throughout the opera and her rendition is particularly excellent in the trio with Roberto and the Duke of Nottingham in Act II, and in the scene that follows where she signs Roberto’s death warrant. Theodossiou has here one of her finest moments and when she dismisses Essex, the storm raging inside her is so vividly depicted in her singing that one is left numb, as if one’s blood has congealed in one’s veins. Regrettably, while her voice is flawless in its lowest and middle ranges, in its highest it does not always live up to expectation. She possesses an assured coloratura; however a slight strident tone in the most demanding passages is clearly audible. Here, she compares unfavourably with Edita Gruberova who recorded the role (I believe in 1994) and also sang it on stage (as recently as June 2008), creating a bench mark, with her gorgeous, effortless singing, which makes it a tough act to follow for any other soprano. Massimiliano Pisapia as Roberto is very good, audibly making a believable Earl of Essex for whom Elizabeth could fall. I would like to see him on stage, as from the CD it is impossible to say if he would have the same effect when seen and not just heard. His warm, flexible and expressive tenor voice is at its best in the tender moments with Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham who he is in love with. However, Pisapia’s rendition of the aria Come uno spirto angelico, in Act III, sung when Roberto is alone in the tower, awaiting his death and dreaming of defending Sara’s chastity to her husband, is not only beautifully poignant but also moving. The other members of the cast all give very effective, solid performances, notably Federica Bragaglia, as Sara, who sounds suitably sweet and innocent, in particular during the tender moments with Roberto; and especially American baritone, Andrew Schroeder, who is excellent as the vindictive Duke of Nottingham. His voice is colourful and clear, with threatening nuances when the music and the plot so demand but also capable of warmth, making his performance, alongside those by Theodossiou and Pisapia, very convincing.

Marcello Rota is a distinguished, talented conductor, with an illustrious career that features some of the best orchestras in the world and the most renowned opera houses. He is a very good conductor of opera with a strong dramatic sense. This comes across in his powerful interpretation of Donizetti’s score, assuredly leashing the singers in an emotionally intense rendition but never losing sight of the impact of Donizetti’s music. Rota leads the orchestra and chorus of the Bergamo Musica Festival in an excellent performance. He conducts with clarity, conscious of the sound, making it luminous at times or wonderfully subtle to cushion the soloists’ voices to best effect.

All that is left for me to say is that while this recording of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux is perhaps not memorable, it is nevertheless an achievement that contains brilliance as well as powerful, dramatic expression. Donizetti’s score lacks the graceful charm of his comic operas, like La fille du régiment or L’elisir d’amore, but it is rich in beautiful, at times, unusual melodies and interesting orchestrations, which always make for enjoyable listening. This live recording from Naxos does it absolute justice and, at only £8.99, it is very good value for money.

-- Margarida Mota-Bull, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: August 26, 2008

  • Catalog Number: 8660222-23

  • UPC: 730099022279

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 2

  • Composer: Gaetano Donizetti

  • Conductor: Marcello Rota

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Bergamo Music Festival Orchestra Chorus, Bergamo Musica Festival Orchestra

  • Performer: Andrew Schroeder, Dimitra Theodossiou, Federica Bragaglia, Giorgio Valerio, Luigi Albani, Massimiliano Pisapia, Tomamaso Norelli