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A Royal déjà vu

Los Angeles
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
02/22/2020 -  & February 27, March 1, 5, 8, 14, 2020
Gaetano Donizetti: Roberto Devereux (Company Premiere)
Angela Meade [singer]/Nicola Bowie [actor] (Elisabetta), Ramón Vargas (Roberto Devereux), Ashley Dixon*/Raehann Bryce-David (Sara, Duchess of Nottingham), Quinn Kelsey*/Kihun Moon (Duke of Nottingham), Anthony Ciaramitaro (Lord Cecil), Michael J. Hawk (Sir Gualtiero Raleigh), Steve Pence (page), Abdiel Gonzalez (servant of Nottingham), Christopher Halstead (Henry VIII), Donna Gale (Anna Bolena), Kirstin Hunziker (Princess Elizabeth)
Los Angeles Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Grant Gershon (chorus master), Roberto Cani (concertmaster), Eun Sun Kim*/Louis Lohraseb (conductor)
Stephen Lawless (stage director), Benoît Dugardyn (set designer), Ingeborg Bernerth (costume designer), Christopher Akerlind (lighting designer), Nicola Bowie (choreographer)

A. Dixon, A. Meade (© Cory Weaver)

If déjà vu could be pinned on the lapel of one singer, it would likely go to Angela Meade. As one of opera’s most sought-after dramatic sopranos, following her 2012 Los Angeles Opera (LAO) Don Giovanni debut, her second visit to LAO was filled with challenges as she encountered “climbing her own Mt. Everest” during the third performance of Norma in 2015. She prevailed!

In retrospect, Gaetano Donizetti always felt Roberto Devereux was jinxed from the get-go due to a myriad of issues. The carry-over into this production was also “possessed”, specifically focusing on three major cast changes, the first being Alice Coote’s, then Plácido Domingo’s withdrawal, and, finally, Davinia Rodríguez, who only five days ago announced she would step down from the throne due to illness. God Save the Queen! And in this case, Angela Meade’s resuscitative operation held Donizetti’s tragedia lirica together...but with a caveat...

Back in 1837 when Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux premiered in Naples, his life was rife with disasters. Composing this piece came under extreme duress. He had lost not only his parents, but also three stillborn infants and his wife. Perhaps these traumatic events facilitated his energies into one of the most thunderous, terse and dramatic discourses within his œuvres. Last night’s turn of events may have purportedly been a continuum of the Italian’s life.

If an initial investment could staunch the flow of Roberto Devereux’s impending demise, it would turn to Stephen Lawless’ traditionally colorful Globe Theater backdrop that quartered Benoît Dugardyn and Ingeborg Bernerth in scenery and costuming, respectively. Mounted back in 2014 in Toronto, this Canadian Opera Company set was full of opulent Britannic outlines with quick maneuvering through an operatic “CliffsNotes” lesson of “Elizabeth I: 101”: rushing to a twee fantasy pantomime that toggled between a reenactment of England’s 1588 Spanish Armada defeat and a superfluous verdant divertissement of Midsummer Night’s Dream (the only Shakespearian play in which Elisabetta performed.) This front ended Elisabetta’s life, just as the opera’s finale turned over the back cover.

The angst of solvency was somewhat relaxed. Prior to the entrée of debuting Eun Sun Kim, San Francisco Opera’s new music director, Christopher Koelsch announced Angela Meade would assume the leading female rôle...“it’s a marvel”, commented M. Koelsch. We were assuaged by her presence, but on her terms in this performance. Because of the extremely taxing demands and a last minute salvation, Mlle Meade prudently chose to sing on the side of the stage while her character would be acted (more like pantomime) by choreographer Nicola Bowie, yet another abrupt turn of events. Even though the decision was sage and protective, it blocked full integration.

LAO patrons have a forgiving spirit, and, generally speaking, were quick to accept and embrace the circumstances. Act I's overall momentum was in search of a cadence appropriée, a ship seemingly adrift with Nicola Bowie’s gesticulations not mapping precisely upon Ms. Meade’s notes, but it had to be....a wise move. Maestro Kim's initial tempo was pointedly slow, paving way for Angela Meade to seek a ‘comfortable fit’ leading up to intermission. With more assuredness under her belt, pacing inside Act II and III picked up and eclipsed the soprano's trepidations. Does this sound a little bit like Norma back on November 21, 2015?

Fortuitously, the remaining principal cast members kept Donizetti’s momentum in full force. Quinn Kelsey's vibrantly suited tessitura gave him the maximum edge as his duped Duke of Nottingham ‘hit it out of the ballpark’. A sublime mezzo, Peachtree City native Ashley Dixon sang with purity while leveling out the degrees of intensity when having to jockey through the dealings with her husband (and perceived infidelities), and the eventuality of losing Roberto Devereux. Having returned to Los Angeles after singing the title role in Don Carlo in 2018, Ramón Vargas majestically pivoted through a powerfully-driven discourse as the doomed Roberto Devereux. The Sara/Devereux duet, “Da che tornasti, o misera”, showed just how beautifully balanced and at ease two voices could blend and build to Act I’s climax. While standing behind bars in the Tower of London, M. Vargas’ “Bagnato il sen di lagrime” had an impassioned signature and a conservative restraint as he plead for his life...such prevailing consistency surrounded his Roberto Devereux wherever he went.

The two evil parliamentarians, Anthony Ciaramitaro’s salty Lord Cecil and Michael J. Hawk’s arrogant, pipe-smoking Sir Gualtiero Raleigh gave riveting translations that elevated the tension during the signing of Devereaux’s death penalty. Nicola Bowie’s blocking was particularly nerve-wracking and ominous…the foreshadowing was superlative. Grant Gershon’s Los Angeles Opera Chorus, was a ‘shoo-in’, providing a crucial backdrop around every corner of Donizetti’s dilemma with the vocal encasement roughening and softening the edges of a stimulating drama.

If pathos were to strike the rawest of nerves, it would turn to Elisabetta’s searing “Vivi, ingrato” and the scathing “mad scene”, “Quel sangue versato”. Angela Meade shattered the glass of defeat with anguish and pain that was made all the more magnetically feeble as Ingeborg Bernerth stripped Nicola Bowie’s Elisabetta to stern tatters. Such devastation! Matched against Donizetti’s music, when all was said and done, this passage drew the strongest abasement, crushing the evening to a stunning close.

High anticipation and much PR had been building towards the opening night and Company Premiere of Roberto Devereux. Kudos to Los Angeles Opera, Chorus and Orchestra for pulling off the impossible under extenuating circumstances. Despite being blanketed by many footnotes, one thing’s clear: Angela Meade was a godsend to create the backbone to Roberto Devereux. Opera will prevail with its occasionally wild divergences, yet we still admire the firm commitment each member has to this art form.

Christie Grimstad



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