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A Bitter Revenge

Athenaeum Theatre
11/11/2017 -  & November 14*, 16, 18, 2017
Gaetano Donizetti: Roberto Devereux
Helena Dix (Queen Elizabeth 1), Henry Choo (Roberto Devereux, Earl of Essex), Phillip Calcagno (Duke of Nottingham), Danielle Calder (Sara, Duchess of Nottingham), Jason Wasley (Lord Cecil), Eddie Muliaumaseali’i (Sir Walter Raleigh), Finn Gilheany (A Page), Adam Jon (A Servant)
Melbourne Opera Chorus, Raymond Lawrence (Chorus Master), Melbourne Opera Orchestra, Greg Hocking (Conductor)
Suzanne Chaundy (Director), Christina Logan-Bell (Designer), Lucy Birkinshaw (Lighting), Jennie Tate (Costumes, courtesy Opera Australia)

H. Dix, H. Choo, P. Calcagno (© Melbourne Opera)

Full stage productions of Roberto Devereux are rare and rarer still are full “cycles” of Donizetti’s three Tudor operas. That it falls to the small, unsubsidised company of Melbourne Opera to premier two of the three operas in Australia and consequently premier the complete trio is something of a minor miracle. Not only have Melbourne Opera lived up to their charter to provide a wider choice of repertoire for the opera-going public, but they have done so in style and with considerable success. Both Maria Stuarda and Ana Bolena were creditable productions which drew widespread praise and now Roberto Devereux completes their trifecta with a highly successful production and some superb, on occasion, superlative singing.

Completing their interpretation of the trilogy, Director Suzanne Chaundy, Designer Christina Logan-Bell and Lighting Designer Lucy Birkinshaw, have made a formidable team. They have created a coherent structure out of the sometimes convoluted plot lines, recognising consistent threads in the themes of love, revenge, politics and ambition. All the productions have had a similar feel: space, suggestive scenery, a minimum of stage “business” resulting in an uncluttered overall impression and sumptuous costuming. The three operas tell parts of one story and it is this aspect coupled with the magnificence of Donizetti’s scores which is emphasised in this intelligent and coherent series of shows. The production team have every right to be delighted with the results they have achieved.

Conductor Greg Hocking lead the Melbourne Opera Orchestra in a solid performance. Some reports suggested little inconsistencies on opening night but put that down to first night nerves. This second performance settled into consistency with subtle highlights. The difficult resumption of accompaniment following the many a capella interludes was handled with accuracy and restraint. As in earlier shows, this band produced a body of sound far beyond expectations from such a compact group. Also extending their sterling performances of the other operas, the Melbourne Opera Chorus gave a first rate implantation of the extensive choral passages. As a group, they punch far above their weight.

As Queen Elizabeth, Helena Dix was astoundingly skilful. Returning to her home town from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Ms Dix brings with her a wealth of experience which radiated throughout her performance. Her luminous voice handled with apparent ease the fearsome climbs into the stratospheric, matching with poise the rapid dives to the depths of her lower register. She is an impressive stage presence, displaying a rich array of acting skills across a wide palette of emotions. Her Elizabeth began as a grotesque caricature of the aged ingénue, convincing herself that a man thirty years her junior was returning to her out of love. She accentuated the capriciousness of the monarch in being able to forgive his alleged treason if she believed he truly loved her. We glimpsed her fickleness through her dismissal of Lord Cecil and the courtiers with threatening glares and waves of the ring-laden royal hand. She was heavily made-up and dressed to accentuate the mortal fear Elizabeth reportedly held of being seen as old. Yet, every action, every vocal utterance belied the hideous exterior which had brought the audience to laughter at the ridiculousness of her pretence. By the end of the performance, Ms Dix had taken us through a gambit of personas becoming increasingly deranged and dangerous and finally frantic and despairing. But it was her singing which compels admiration; immense variety, accuracy and strength combined with subtle shifts in mood and tone gave this Elizabeth the dimensions of a real woman deluding herself and her nation. As she screams, “Remember, I am Henry’s daughter!” it becomes chillingly apparent that the pandering gorgon of the first act is a dangerous and unpredictable foe.

Roberto, Earl of Essex was capably sung by Melbourne tenor Henry Choo. His strong partnership of the ensemble pieces was the highlight of his performance His voice is most flexible in the mid-range, occasionally lacking volume in the higher passages but as a partner to both Ms Dix and the similarly strong voice of Danielle Calder singing Sara, he proved to be more than up to the task, rendering some lovely moments at the end of Act 1 and again with the Queen in Act 2.

Melbourne mezzo Danielle Calder has had wide experience in both opera and music theatre and she brings confidence and surety to her interpretation of Sara, Duchess of Nottingham. Hers is a rich and powerful voice with a dazzling upper register and immense flexibility. She was in especially fine voice for this performance and gave full flight to the variety and disparity of the emotional tines in the score.

The other principal male parts were capably sung by Phillip Calcagno, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, and Jason Wasley. There were a couple of moments when Mr Calcagno had difficulty handing the new English translation which was less than entirely effective in some of his solo passages but he overcame these to rise to a striking and successful final act.

Melbourne Opera will be justifiably delighted with the audience reaction and should be proud of the achievement in staging these three demanding gems from the bel canto repertoire.

Gregory Pritchard



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