Review: Donizetti’s ‘Robert Devereux’ at SF Opera (****)

by Charles Kruger

Sondra Radvanovsky is memorably imperious as Elizabetta in Donizetti’s BelCanto drama, “Roberto Devereux”
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Director Stephen Lawless, helped by the excellent set designed by Benoît Dugardy, has staged Donizetto’s baroque bel canto masterpiece, “Robert Devereux,” in the style of an Elizabethan play by Shakespeare. It is a bit of an odd mashup, as the melodramatic libretto is not at all Shakespearean, but very Italian, and full of overwrought emotion. No matter. It is superbly entertaining story telling and serves its purpose well.

And what is the purpose? To showcase the singing of a stellar cast and who cares about the rather obvious, mechanical, and historically absurd plot.

So: the set and costumes are beautiful, the story telling is admirably clear, and the entertainment value is high. So much for that!

Donizetti is one of the great composers of the Bel Canto tradition, a manner of singing, most popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, that stressed extremely demanding vocal gymnastics, with elaborate melodies requiring a huge range of notes, rapid fire delivery, and a great deal of skill. With the rise of so-called “opera verismo” (realistic opera), it is a style which gradually faded in popularity as audiences came to prefer operas that put more and more emphasis on realistic acting and accessible melody.

In the 1950s, Bel Canto enjoyed a revival, as many opera companies revived the works of such Bel Canto greats as Bellini and Donizetti. Audiences once again came to appreciate the extraordinary athleticism and versatility of this style.

All of which is to say that  Bel Canto is a great traditional style of singing, not often heard today in opera houses, but welcome indeed when companies decide to revive a Bel Canto opera.

“Robert Devereux” is one of the great Bel Canto operas, known for its extraordinary variety of melody, and putting large demands on the singers.

So: what was the singing like in this production? In a word: magnificent

As Queen Elisabetta, Sondra Radvanovsky delivers all that one could ask for in a bel canto performance. Known as a great interpreter of Verdi, it is a bit of a surprise to hear her singing in Donizetti, but it is certainly not a disappointment. Her rapid fire delivery is thrilling, never shrill, and always precise. Her acting is superb, and her desperate and emotional volatile Elisabetta send chills down the spine, especially in her obligatory emotional breakdown. Brava!

Her performance is well matched by tenor Russell Thomas as Devereux. Thomas’s voice is remarkably powerful but always under careful control. His physical strength is astounding. At one point he seems to sing virtualy non-stop for perhaps twenty full minutes, never flagging or losing clarity.

Jamie Barton, as Sara, the third point in the story’s romantic triangle, sings with outstanding grace. Barton is a rising star at the Metropolitan Opera, greatly admired for her musicianship and clarity. Her reputation is a lot to live up to, but she succeeds with ease.

“Robert Devereux” is a true adventure in Bel Canto, a demonstration by expert singers of just what the human voice can do. For opera lovers, it has all the excitement and stakes of circus acrobats taking risks on the high wire.

If your opera going is usually limited to the more familiar “chestnuts” of Verdi, Puccinni, and Mozart, you would do well to stretch your ears and your appreciation with “Robert Devereux.”

“Roberto Devereux” plays at the War Memorial Opera House through September 27, 2018. For further information click here.

Rating: **** (for an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“Roberto Devereux” by Gaetano Donizetto, with libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, presented by SF Opera. Conductor: Riccardo Frizza. Director: Stephen Lawless. Set Designer: Benoît Dugardyn. Costume Designer: Ingeborg Bernerth. Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. Choreographer: Lawrence Pech. Fight Director: Dave Maier. 


Elisabetta, Queen of England:  Sondra Radvanovsky.Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex: Russell Thomas. Lord Cecil: Amitai Pati. Sir Walter Raleigh: Christian Pursell. Sara, Duchess of Nottingham: Jamie Barton. A page: Ben Brady. Duke of Nottingham: Andrew Manea. Nottingham’s servant: Igor Vieira. 

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