One by one, the country-house opera companies are laying out their wares, each with its unique selling point. For me, Opera Holland Park's USP is partly horticultural – the Kyoto Garden, so idyllic a piece of Japan that you can hardly believe you're in London – and partly anti-operatic, in that the open-air stage is invaded by a gentle cacophony of birds, dogs, children, aeroplanes, and traffic sounds. But the company's raison d'être lies in adventurous programming, coupled with an ability to pull in some outstanding voices – and on both counts the opening show scored high.
Donizetti wrote Roberto Devereux – an ahistorical take on the story of Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, while grieving over his wife's death (which may explain why it contains so much weeping). In the view of its conductor – veteran bel canto specialist Richard Bonynge – the story is pure Hollywood: Devereux and Sara, Duchess of Nottingham are clandestinely in love, but the Queen loves Devereux; an incriminating scarf condemns him to death, but a ring given him by the Queen would guarantee his pardon. Sara's vengeful husband hides the ring until the axe has fallen, whereupon the Queen goes mad with grief.
This opera may not often be performed, but it's dramatically gripping, and musically first-rate, provided it has a first-rate singing actress in the role of Elisabetta. And in soprano Majella Cullagh it gets exactly that: she brings to her laments and rages a glorious purity and versatility of tone. Contrasting with this is the very different timbre of mezzo Yvonne Howard, as Sara: a smaller voice, but with a lovely, carrying projection. Tenor Leonardo Capalbo looks and acts a brilliant Devereux, but vocally he's sadly underpowered until, late in the evening, he suddenly produces a pitiful plangency in his climactic, pre-execution scene. Baritone Julian Hubbard makes a good fist of Nottingham, if at times a shade flat.
The orchestra plays with passion, director Lindsay Posner pushes his courtiers and soldiers about with over-choreographed precision, but his direction of the final scene allows Cullagh to lose her wits with convincing abandon; off comes the dress, and then the wig, leaving Gloriana like a mad Pierrot bathed in unearthly white light, while the cymbals crash and the winds and strings weep on.
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