Roberto Devereux Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre, 2 Oct 2013
Conductor: Daniele Rustioni
Director: Alessandro Talevi
Designer: Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer: Matthew Haskins
Movement: Maxine Braham
Cast includes: Leonardo Capalbo, Alexandra Deshorties, Leah-Marian Jones & David Kempster
I have a confession to make. The last time I went to the opera I was six. I had thought that I must surely have been older than that but a quick investigation on Google tells me that in order for me to have seen ENO’s version of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld I would have to have been that age. Considering an absence of twenty-eight years from the opera, you might have thought that that first evening didn’t go with very much of a bang, but in fact I remember absolutely loving it. The sound, the costumes and stage set (designed by Gerald Scarfe at the peak of his success) were stunning. And then there was the joy of simply going to somewhere as beautiful as the London Coliseum and, of course, the fact that Orpheus has a pretty great – if fairly risqué – plot for a child.
So why the enormously prolonged absence? It’s hard to put too fine a point on it but I suppose the main answer is wanting to have friends and indie music. Yes, going to a state school where liking books got me into enough trouble as it was, meant that a love of opera was never really going to be a plausible calling card during my teenage years. Besides, there was, not unreasonably, that indie music to contend with (for more of which see my contribution to Great Musical Moments elsewhere in this issue.)
Fittingly enough, that very modern production of Orpheus was co-produced by David Pountney, now of course, head of WNO and doing such a sterling job of making opera in Wales stand head and shoulders alongside its London counterpart. Certainly in the Millennium Centre he has a stunning contemporary opera house to work with. Everywhere you look there is gleamingly polished wood, recalling the sixties but successfully updating it. The Welsh and English subtitles above the stage glow tastefully and unobtrusively. To my ears, at least, the acoustics sounded perfect and indeed Wales Arts Review’s resident opera specialist, Steph Power, assures me that even the cheapest seats in the Gods – which can go for as little as £5 – benefit from the same sound quality. Indeed with the best seats going for £40 (exceptional by London standards) there is a strong argument for saying that WNO is the best night out in Cardiff.
Because I have to tell you it was very good. While I am not completely unknowledgeable about opera – my father’s love for it would make that impossible – I had certainly never heard of Donizetti and so wasn’t that sure what to expect from a ‘Tudor’ opera by somebody that wasn’t all that well known. Could it be a gimmick to cash in on the publics’ taste for Wolf Hall and all things period drama? The conversations I had with fellow opera-goers who had been to the previous two performances, Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda (Roberto Devereux is the final piece in a trilogy put together by WNO), hinted as much, as they bordered on the bemused.
Any such reservations were put aside as the evening began with a truly stunning rendition of the overture. This was marked, as was the entire evening, by Daniele Rustioni’s powerhouse conducting and by the superb performance of the orchestra. Donizetti’s music is a feverish rush, full of the pomp and circumstance of court life, making its occasional forays into more melancholy terrain all the more welcome and affecting. It certainly bears out the composer’s own claim that Devereux is ‘the opera of the emotions.’
The curtain opens on a minimalist stage which features a bench and a flat screen TV-like ‘aquarium’. Leah-Marian Jones, playing Sarah, Duchess of Norfolk, is perched on the bench and begins to sing with extraordinary clarity and beauty, in a revelatory performance which, for me, was the equal of Alexandra Deshorties’ outstanding Elizabeth.
When Deshorties finally arrives onstage, with dozens of hands suddenly being pressed again the glass wall backdrop, the problem is that she is dressed quite a lot like Rebecca Font’s comic portrayal of Vivienne Westwood in Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge. Perhaps owing to this and to the crystalline beauty of Jones’ opening performance, Deshorties initially underwhelms, only really coming into her own as the tension begins to be ratcheted up prior to the interval.
Other reviewers have complained about the costumes and set design of this production. However, that Westwoodian nightmare aside, I felt that the set design – if quite jarring with the material – largely worked well, creating a dark and claustrophobic atmosphere, mirroring Elizabeth’s inner world. It couldn’t be further away from a Hollywood drama like The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and yet, ironically enough, Donizetti’s almost camp romanticism more calls to mind the Michael Curtiz-directed film than the Brechtian winter landscapes set designer Madeleine Boyd has created.
This reaches its apotheosis when Elizabeth is perched atop of a giant, Louise Bourgeois-style mechanical spider (images of a spider at the centre of its web recur throughout the production) and menacingly corners Essex (played with suitably romantic élan by Leonardo Capalbo). Whether or not this is a fully thought out idea is a moot point. However, it certainly adds drama and spectacle to what is already an intense denouement. Indeed Deshorties is on fire at this point, not only holding the room spellbound with her extraordinary vocal range but also with her acting abilities. When Essex dies and she transforms herself with enormous subtlety into someone as sad and barren as the bleak stage settings have long foretold, then it is not difficult to declare that, despite earlier misgivings, the night really has belonged to her.
Indeed, whatever the rights and wrongs of the costume and set design, there can be little doubt that Roberto Devereux is a triumph and a triumph largely owing to the sheer quality of the entire company – from the extraordinary Rustioni to David Kempster’s brooding Norfolk – of performers. The singing and instrumentation was simply peerless. And I’ll be coming back, no question. And no, I won’t leave it twenty-eight years this time.