Roberto Devereux

Roberto Devereux (1998)
Image Entertainment
Cast: Carlo Del Bosco, Ildiko Komlosi, Jean Lefebvre, Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Giuseppe Sabatini, Robert
Extras: Program Notes

Image Entertainment has undertaken to distribute a fascinating series of opera performances in association with Eagle Rock Entertainment. Image’s strategy is not to identify lead singers or conductors in their promotional information. This is probably a shrewd calculation. Performances in this series are not from main line houses, nor is the talent involved generally name brand. Even so, these DVDs preserve live performances that are at least valuable and, in the case of "Roberto Devereux," even treasurable.

The San Carlo in Naples is the oldest European opera house still in operation. As major houses go, the San Carlo has long been marginalized. The only front rank talents it attracts tend to be on the way up or waving farewell to their career. In its heyday, the Royal opera house in Naples not only attracted leading on-stage talent, but commissioned works from many of the great composers. One of those was Donizetti’s "Roberto Devereux", least known of a trilogy of Tudor-related operas that also includes "Anna Bolena" and "Maria Stuarta." According to scant but excellent program notes on the disk, 19th Century San Carlo house manager Domenico Barbaja commissioned composer Gaetano Donizetti to collaborate with native Neapolitan librettist Salvatore Cammarano on this opera for a projected September 1837 premiere.

By the due date, the opera was ready but the censors were not. "Roberto Devereux" explores the tortured interrelationship amongst four characters and their conflicting allegiances, one with the other. The Vienna debut of "Maria Stuarta" had shocked royalty with its blistering confrontation between Elisabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. In "Roberto Devereux," the ’Virgin Queen’ (as Elizabeth was known) was making a nuisance of herself all over again! "Roberto Devereux" was tied up for months owing to its depiction of the beheading of the title character. The fragmented Italian monarchies in particular were already ripe for unification and for dissolution of royalty as obsolete. Obstreperous queens were not exactly a spectacle to which royalty aspired for public entertainment. Opera was as popular a diversion with the people as it was with heads of state. It was a force to be reckoned with when it depicted ’problem’ scenarios, like when is it time to hang up your crown?

Donizetti was prolific, at a cost to his more consistently hitting the heights of inspiration. That said, his rarer works are great fodder for discovery. So how do things work out for "Roberto Devereux"? My experience has been that East European way with coloratura can be punishing, but I was pleasantly surprised that soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska easily assumes star center of this enterprise. Miss Pendatchanska, playing the old absolute monarch is from the Bette Davis school of Tudor ladies. (Bette Davis played Elisabeth in essentially the same story in two films.) Like Davis, Pendatchanska lunges and lurches, totters and flounces…and who would have it any other way? Her vocal authority is absolutely sure, particularly in the lower register where she has an inestimable advantage over many a better known authority in this role.

The title character is also the nominal lead in this production, and Giuseppe Sabatini as Roberto demonstrates a handsome tenor of the highest caliber. The trouble is, whatever isn’t grist for a star turn for Elisabetta in this opera is mostly just ensemble. This means Sabatini’s role as Roberto is not ideal to show off what he’s got, only sufficient to demonstrate that it’s there. Sabatini has a robust voice he handles with such precision and subtlety, it’s a pity there’s not more to show it off. If Sabatini has less than his fair share of the spotlight, the second leads fare comparatively better. Mezzo Ildiko Komlosi as Sara, in common with baritone Roberto Serville as Essex, occasionally lacks an accurate or focused tone, yet both are a credit overall to the production.

The production is cut from the mould, but there are pleasing refinements and surprises. "Roberto Devereux" is full-blooded melodrama. As history, it hones a little more closely to fact than most. The libretto is not without one howler, however. In the end, Elizabeth dons mourning and renounces her monarchy in favor of James I. This is effective as drama, but breathtaking in its historical inaccuracy since her successor probably had to break Elisabeth’s fingers on her funeral bier to pry loose the crown!

The staging is effective throughout, in particular the last act. Though the performances as acting for the most part are applied, there are occasions you’d swear that feeling was issuing from the inside out. Unfortunately, "Roberto Devereux" is erratic in its performance rhythm, correct but not impassioned. This appears to be more the result of an apathetic audience than due to any want on the stage or in the orchestral pit. In the idiom of today’s Donizetti, conductor Alain Guignal brings sparkle to the score. When he accelerates ensemble finales, the singers are well up to the coloratura challenges, but the result is less than it should be because the audience is not along for the ride. The cast looks particularly dejected during the Act Two curtain calls. By final curtain, the performance excellence is appreciated, but by then it is too little too late. (I loved the way Sabatini screws up his mouth upon his parting scan of the audience, as if to say, "Yeah, sure…a lot YOU cared!") Applause is dead by the time the cast has beat its retreat.

This production introduces a ’first’ in my experience of opera production on video. Instead of zooming, on several occasions a camera tracks from a long shot to hone in on a point of interest then cranes back again to a full shot of the stage once again, but from a different perspective. Most movement is fluid, though at one key moment it is flubbed by poor focus pulling. I appreciated that the tracking never draws undue attention to itself yet contributes to the overall effectiveness of the presentation. However, the camera reserved for long shots is evidently not high definition as the rest appear to be. The effect of cutting to this camera was mildly distracting with the unfortunate side effect of suggesting that camerawork was less vivid than it was.

The presentation on this DVD is pleasingly sharp, fluid and detailed in a 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> ratio in a transfer that is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> television set. The colorful production is nicely reproduced with colors that are always natural, and with a splendid black-level that gives the image a lot of depth and visual dimension without losing detail and definition. The compression on this disc is also exemplary and no compression artifacts are visible, making this DVD a great-looking and highly detailed genre release.

Image Entertainment has added two audio tracks to this DVD, a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> mix, as well as a 2-channel Stereo mix. Both tracks have a very low noise floor and are free of distortion. However, as I frequently find with theater recordings, the <$5.1,5.1 mix> has a rather distant and echoy quality that doesn’t really have the desired punch and dynamics you would hope for, as especially the reflections that make up the rear channels add a lot of "sonic air" to the mix. Fortunately, the 2-channel presentation, while still less forward than I’d have preferred, is rich and satisfying with a noticeably tighter quality.

A welcome trend in video opera is selectable subtitles. I appreciated the opportunity to follow this lesser known work with subtitles until I had the gist of what the words conveyed. Later I enjoyed observing the singers unimpeded.

The San Carlo is in a congested area of Naples where it’s difficult to obtain a photogenic perspective. All the same, when you consider the history "Roberto Devereux" shares with the San Carlo in Naples, it might have been nice to see more of it than just a few auditorium views. Still, "Roberto Devereux" is that satisfaction earned by exploring the less familiar, the less perfect. It’s a keeper.