Twenty years since Michael Volpe got the job to create events at Holland Park Theatre (as part of a much wider brief), Opera Holland Park (now, officially, with the prefix Korn/Ferry) has become a firm favourite of London’s summer. This year’s season has already handsomely paid back its supporters’ loyalty with this opening production, something of a rarity: Donizetti’s lovelorn English royal saga, Roberto Devereux.
With the last London performances in 2002 (and then only in concert at the Royal Opera, recorded by Opera Rara), this was always going to be a production to collect; thankfully it is hugely recommendable and goes a long way to argue for full restoration rights into the repertoire.
The wonder is that Donizetti felt like writing it at all. His parents had recently died, and in July 1837 his wife died as well, so he was composing in the midst of unbelievable mourning. With its text of three impossible loves – Sarah’s for Essex (the titular character, though hardly the main one), Essex’s for Sarah and Queen Elizabeth’s for Essex – complicated by Parliament’s demands for Essex’s death for treason on the Irish campaign, and Nottingham’s forced marriage with Sarah, there was plenty of angst and ardour in the plot for Donizetti to pour his own broken heart into.
The result is a taut and dramatic opera, with a proper starring role for Elizabeth, here taken by a red-bewigged Majella Cullagh who, after a cautious start, blossomed both vocally and dramatically as the tortured Queen, desperately wanting Essex to return her ring so that she can save him from Parliament’s death sentence, even when she knows she has a rival for his love. Her finger fidgeting and haughty disposition was topped at the end, Essex dead (to Nottingham’s delight), with her Glenda Jackson-like wig removal, showing her age-worn, white-painted face topped only by whispy grey hair, as she calls for James’ succession.
Cast to the hilt, Yvonne Howard sings Sarah, in a loveless marriage to Julian Hubbard’s Nottingham. His friendship to Leonardo Capalbo’s Essex turns to vengeance when he realises Essex loves Sarah. The final scene of the second act is the turning point of the whole opera, where in front of Essex and Nottingham the Queen reveals Sarah’s scarf found on Essex and Nottingham’s attitude turns volte face. Thrillingly sung and clearly directed. For once there was no need for specific scenery – Holland Park’s mock Tudor backdrop fitting perfectly Peter McKintosh’s effective black-and-white chequered staging, with a proliferation of candles (at the extremes, as if floating on water), backed by four flaring stand-alone torches. Lindsay Posner’s production marshals the chorus’ entrances and exits for the most part without distraction (not easy with no tabs to disguise them) and focused well on the main characters.
But perhaps best of all is Richard Bonynge – Mr bel canto himself – crafting the City of London Sinfonia’s contribution. No fuss, just small gestures, as if sculpting the music in miniature. Like all but one of the production team and Cajella, Bonynge is here making his Opera Holland Park debut, and highly distinguished it was too. An added excitement on this first night was the spontaneous applause for Dame Joan Sutherland at the end of the interval, in the audience to see her husband conduct.
There are further performances on 4, 6, 10, 12, 18, 20 June. The 10 June will be conducted by Richard Burgess Ellis.
- Nick Breckenfield