Donizetti thought his opera “Roberto Devereux” jinxed. He had reason. Maybe he still does, if Los Angeles Opera’s opening night of its production Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was any indication.
“Roberto Devereux,” an 1837 Neapolitan anything-goes view of Elizabethan history, was born out of the composer’s personal tragedy, which included the death of his wife as he was writing the opera and a cholera outbreak at the time of the premiere. Despite some early mixed success, the opera had a troubled history that included more than a century of neglect. It was not until 1970, when Beverly Sills starred as a stunning Queen Elizabeth I for New York City Opera, that it really took off.
The New Yorkers immediately brought their production to the Music Center. A young tenor named Plácido Domingo happened to be Devereux, the queen’s lover who jilts her. And that young tenor, who helped found and who until recently ran L.A. Opera, had long been eager to bring the opera to the company. Having become a baritone in his later years, he was equally eager to sing the role of Devereux’s antagonist, the Duke of Nottingham.
As all the opera world knows, Domingo resigned last year as head of the L.A. Opera and dropped out (or was dropped from) all his U.S. engagements in wake of sexual harassment accusations, which he denied. A less starry replacement was found for him, a rising Hawaiian baritone, Quinn Kelsey.
But this production had always seemed a little curious in having Domingo as its selling point. The portrait of Elizabeth — a ferociously powerful queen at the end of her reign whose downfall is jealousy — is the essence of the opera. Although there is effective musical characterization for the rest of the cast, none matters except in relationship to Elizabeth and how everyone else feeds into her self-destruction. The role is like some old Hollywood vehicle for an over-the-top star.
There have been few modern Elizabeths. Today, Sondra Radvanovsky owns the role. Four years ago, the Metropolitan Opera created its gripping David McVicar production around her. L.A. Opera decided to take a chance on a young Spanish soprano, Davinia Rodríguez, for its production, a well-traveled one by Steven Lawless.
Last week, the company announced that illness had forced Rodríguez to withdraw at the last minute. Impressively, Angela Meade, an American soprano who has what may be the best voice to become the next great Elizabeth, jumped aboard with next to no time to prepare. She had, by coincidence, just eight days earlier been starring in Bellini’s “Norma” at Teatro di San Carlo, the very house in Naples, Italy, where “Devereux” had its cholera-scare premiere.
It also turns out that 11 years ago, Meade, then an emerging soprano, had sung Elizabeth in Lawless’ then-new production at Dallas Opera, in an alternate cast for runout performances at schools. Now, as one of the finest bel canto voices, she will star in the Met’s revival of its “Devereux” production in the fall.
Meade arrived in L.A. on Tuesday, and with little time to prepare, she sang Saturday standing at the side of the stage at a music stand with a score. The production’s choreographer, Nicola Bowie, acted the role onstage.
This meant there was some exceptionally fine singing. Meade’s voice has lustrous body and brilliant volume. There is dark richness that holds the potential for exceptional expressivity when that weight of sound is moved with graceful ease. But at this point, the soprano sounded as though still reading the notes, however impressively and powerfully. Meanwhile, Bowie flitted onstage, more like a visage of Elizabeth than the actual queen. The other flesh-and-blood (well, somewhat) characters seemed to be fighting their natural instinct to address the singer in the wings.
There may have been no other option. The curse of “Devereux” persists, although the Los Angeles Philharmonic did a week earlier demonstrate how it is not only possible but also dramatically arresting to divide a role between dancer and singer in its production of Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins.” A bit of theatrical chance-taking might have been interesting.
This, though, is not much of a theatrical chance-taking production. Set as though a Shakespearean play in the Old Globe — this is the Elizabethan era after all — it begins with a pantomime during the overture in which the Bard himself pops up and does a skit from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Though there is a hint of modernization and attitude, the production is essentially more a contrived setting dependent on the singers to make it live.
The plot sort of goes like this: Devereux was the lover of Elizabeth but is now the lover of Sara, who had been the queen’s best friend. The queen, not knowing that Sara and Devereux were secretly in love, forced Sara to marry Nottingham. Nottingham was Devereux’s best friend until he found out about Sara. Devereux is sentenced to death for treason; the queen might have saved him had Sara gotten a ring that Elizabeth had given to Devereux, but Nottingham stopped her, and so on. It doesn’t end well for anyone.
The one great advantage of Benoit Dugardyn’s Old Globe set is that it serves as an acoustic shell doing wonders for the Chandler’s acoustics. Those wonders meant that Ramón Vargas’ sturdy Devereux had tenorial ping. Ashley Dixon, a young mezzo-soprano worth paying attention to, brought an excellent fluidity to Sara. Kelsey proved an Othello-scary Nottingham, apt enough for the Old Globe.
The other news of the night was conductor Eun Sun Kim, who recently was appointed music director of San Francisco Opera. She made the orchestra stand out as though there were a resonator of some sort in the pit. I’m not sure how she did it, but it was effective.
Meade is expected to take the stage Thursday for the second performance, and we’ll know more then, although various cast and conductor changes come later in the run.
Don’t forget “Roberto Devereux” has overcome its jinx more than once.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 5 and March 14; 2 p.m. Sunday and March 14
Tickets: $74-$374 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 972-8001 or LAOpera.org
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (one intermission)