Settling into the ornately decorated Athenaeum Theatre, the audience is shocked to attention with a booming, jolted chord from the orchestra pit. Greg Hocking, conductor and producer of Roberto Devereux, initiates us into an evening of whimsical, musical mastery with a tongue in cheek rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’ that transports the pomp and stuff of early 17th Century England into a balmy 21st Century Melbourne evening. The playful composition of this god-and-crown fearing number signals that what is to come is sure to be a rollicking delight.
Roberto Devereux, the final part of Gaetano Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy, could be considered the original soap opera. Devereux is a favourite squeeze in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and as such when he returns to her shores on dubious terms, she must reprimand him for the official reasons of desertion of duty, but really there are matters of the heart that demand interrogation. What ensues is a stock standard love triangle between Devereux, the Queen, and Devereux’s true love, Sara, Duchess of Nottingham. This story is one we have seen time and again, this particular iteration being first performed in Naples in 1837. But the energy of Melbourne Opera’s staging, under Suzanna Chaundy’s direction, has a buoyancy that brings the farce of such court politics to life, and gives an invigorating oomph to the inevitable demise of these tragic characters. It was a surprise initially to learn the opera was being performed in English. This made it obviously more palatable to the Melbourne audience, yet it was perceptibly more difficult to perform such a rigorous repertoire with lyrics better suited to Italian.
Christina Logan-Bell’s stage design is sparse and moody, with stark lines and shapes that tower over the stage. The light beaming through set walls is dull and diffuse, well suited to the stifling nature of court politics in Tudor England. The brooding tone of the minimalist set works in stark contrast to the bright, simple lighting design of Lucy Birkinshaw, who ensures that every word sung is sufficiently illuminated, allowing the strength and skill of each performer to be thoroughly appreciated.
It is absolutely these strong and skilled performers that maintain the punchy and engaging momentum in Roberto Devereux. Despite Danielle Calder’s opening solo as the Duchess of Nottingham being a little too heavy with melodramatic morosity, the moment Helena Dix sweeps in with the command of a true queen, the melodrama is transformed into a much more exciting game of cat and mouse. Dix performs a Queen with poise and power, and with a voice that is technically brilliant. Her vocal fireworks are riveting in and of themselves, but all the more so as she embodies the fiery desire of a Queen spurned, making waves with her voice and her presence. Henry Choo is similarly pleasing with his vocal mastery in the role of Roberto Devereux, thoroughly impressing the crowd with his solo from the prison cell. Despite this, Phillip Calcagno, as Lord Duke of Nottingham, appears to outshine Choo in his blending of the traditional ‘stand and deliver’ and a more nuanced characterisation. Regardless they all demonstrate impressive vocal prowess in a technically demanding work, the ensemble bathing the audience in delightful waves of sound.
For the opera buff Roberto Devereux is exciting not because it is unusual in its staging, or its interpretation of Donizetti’s music, but because it is engaging and light hearted in dealing with this largely stereotypical tragedy. In only minutes it is clear as day that on this stage politics is a popularity contest, and the game of love plays a key role in the game of life. Moreover it proposes to the audience that monogamy is a thinly veiled tool with which to exercise power and property rights, Queen Elizabeth being the one born into the best position for such exercises. These are sombre issues in isolation, but in Roberto Devereux they are a part of life deftly navigated, by some characters better than others. But it is not for relationship advice or a critique of the aristocracy we are looking for in this evening’s entertainment; it is the indulgence of seeing skilled musicians perform these roles with grace and enthusiasm that we are seeking, and this is absolutely what is delivered.