Toronto ‘Devereux’ Strong But Short On Stylishness

Roberto Devereux (Leonardo Capalbo) pleads with Elisabetta (Sondra Radvanovsky) in the Canadian Opera production of Donizetti's 'Roberto Devereux.'  (Production photos by Michael Cooper)
Roberto Devereux (Leonardo Capalbo) confronts Elisabetta (Sondra Radvanovsky) in the Canadian Opera production.
(Production photos by Michael Cooper)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO – Already this spring, the Canadian Opera Company’s audiences have been treated to Handel’s less-known Hercules, and Massenet’s Don Quichotte, similarly unfamiliar here, is coming up in  May.  

Elisabetta (Radvanovsky) ponders the fate of her lover, Devereux.
Elisabetta (Radvanovsky) ponders the fate of her lover, Devereux.

Currently on the boards at its home in Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre is Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, a tangle of love and politics set in Tudor England. The performance on April 30 (second in a run of seven, closing on May 21) was bursting with operatic virtues. An excellent cast? Yes. Clear and logical stage direction? Indeed. Solid leadership from the conductor’s podium? Absolutely. But what about stylish and period-appropriate performances? Not so much. Instead of the sweet, florid charms of bel canto, this Devereux delivered blood-and-thunder verismo.

So how did a production with so much going for it manage to veer off course? Let’s start with soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, whose portrayal of Elisabetta (Queen Elizabeth I) was brilliant and wrongheaded at the same time. With her laser-accurate soprano voice, she set the pace for a production that was vocally edgy and over-the-top. While she did give the occasional nod to bel canto style – a pianissimo here or an embellishment there – much of her interpretation would have been better suited to Turandot.

It’s useful to mention, at this point, that Radvanovsky and the COC have an interesting working relationship. Since the Chicago native moved to Canada more than a decade ago, settling into an expansive estate northwest of Toronto, she’s found the COC a convenient place to try out new roles. She sang her first Aida with the company in 2010, before productions in Chicago, Barcelona, and Munich. Similarly, this was her first turn at Devereux, in advance of a staging at the Metropolitan Opera.

The Duchess (McHardy) and Duke (Braun) in a tense moment.
The Duchess (McHardy) and Duke (Braun) in a tense moment.

This arrangement is in many ways a good thing for the COC. However, allowing one star cast member to “own” an opera can result in the tail wagging the dog – and this seems to be what happened in Devereux. Did anyone dare to tell Radvanovsky that she needn’t chew the scenery quite so ferociously?

The other singers could only follow suit, to the best of their abilities. Baritone Russell Braun and mezzo Allyson McHardy, as the Duke and Duchess of Nottingham, respectively, had the vocal strength to pull it off. However, their highly charged performances made their big scene together – when the Duke learns of his wife’s infidelity – sound like something out of Pagliacci.

On the other hand, tenor Leonardo Capalbo, in the title role, sometimes forced his voice outside of its comfort-zone, giving his delivery a labored, shouty quality. His moment to shine, as he awaited execution in prison, was a stylistic cut-and-paste from Tosca.

Corrado Rovaris conducts the Toronto production.
Corrado Rovaris conducts the Toronto production.

Happily, other aspects of the production were more appropriate to the opera in question. Director Stephen Lawless, who has mounted all three of Donizetti’s “Tudor” operas in Dallas, brought a seamless fluidity to the action that worked quite well. And the designers – Benoit Dugardyn for sets and Ingeborg Bernerth for costumes – created a surprisingly period-based tableau. (I say “surprisingly” because it’s a rarity these days for the COC to present an opera in its intended place and time.) The single set, recalling Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, lent an “all the world’s a stage” aspect to the production. That, and the designers’ liberal use of blood-red in the color scheme, aptly underscored central ideas in the opera.

Under the direction of Corrado Rovaris, the COC Orchestra and Chorus were in fine form. Rovaris also bought in to the verismo approach (did he have a choice?), injecting angst into Donizetti’s score at every opportunity.

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Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based critic and composer. Last year, his book Remembering Glenn Gould was published by Penumbra Press, and his compact disc Colin Eatock: Chamber Music was released on the Centrediscs label.