Roberto Devereux review - Opera Chaser

From Melbourne Opera, intellectual and visceral strength greet the long overdue Australian premiere of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux

Make no bones about it, as an independent company that receives no government funding, Melbourne Opera's 2017 season has delivered a degree of consistency and excellence that places it firmly amongst the city's well-funded cultural institutions. First, it was a jolly good HMS Pinafore in March. Then, a riveting Lohengrinfollowed in August that demonstrated an increasing ambitiousness that now comes with proven flexibility. Finally, on Saturday evening, Melbourne Opera capped off the year with a rave-worthy production of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, in its long overdue Australian premiere, to complete the company's study of the composer's Tudor trilogy. Directed by Suzanne Chaundy, who likewise directed Maria Stuarda in 2015 and Anna Bolena in 2016, what is evident is a ripened sense of detail and quality that surpasses the former two works with both its intellectual and visceral strength.

If it wasn't for the high standard of vocal output, the retina-stimulating force of the sumptuous period-inspired costumes by Jenny Tate (on loan from the Opera Australia wardrobe) might have overwhelmed. Even with the same aesthetic employed in the previous two works, Christina Logan-Bell's effective and beautifully crafted design that features the Tudor rose motif and Lucy Birkinshaw's evocative lighting made for an even more eye-catching setting that pushes towards a vividly stylised hyper-realism and compliments a story that pushes history's boundaries of truth.

Embroiling emotional sentiments with political judgement, an ageing, unmarried and vain Queen Elizabeth I has cemented her status as a monarch but cannot conceal her frustration as a woman, spurned by her 'favourite', a man a third her age, Robert, Earl of Essex.

When I saw Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sing the taxing role of Elizabeth at New York's Metropolitan Opera, she was hailed with huge and deserved applause. I ruminated. As her understudy, how would Australian-born Helena Dix have navigated the role, one resplendent with the thrilling ornamented singing that characterises the bel canto repertoire?

Melbourne now has the evidence of Dix's grandeur. In a performance that is interpreted with not only vocal prowess but done so all the way down to the fingertips, local audiences are further acquainted with Dix's formidable stage presence and dramatic capability after impressing as Elsa in Lohengrin. Dix imbues Elizabeth with wealthy helpings of character without limiting her to the dismissive hand of imperiousness. A cheeky flirtatious tickle of a squire's beard as she makes her entrance in the Great Hall at Westminster, a girlish self-consciousness with the arrival of Robert and her often temperamental swings establish a firm portrait inbuilt with ageless emotional identity and ageing physical form.

Of her vocal exhibition, Dix locked together a dazzling spectrum of expression from sweet musings to defiance and ultimate despair with seemingly effortless and arabesque melodic turns. Sung in English, there was nowhere to look but at a queen reigning over the stage. And it's not often you hear coloratura that contains bursts of character and meaning that drive the drama rather than simply providing exciting vocal fireworks - and an audience that engagingly responds to it on the way.

Alongside Dix, more familiar faces at Melbourne Opera honoured her presence in some of their best performances yet, delivering both compelling acting and singing. Fighting off charges of treason as Robert in the titular role, increasingly charismatic tenor Henry Choo reinforces the complex dynamics in his character's liaisons and presents a passionate, sturdy and full-bodied vocal vehicle that is polished with conviction. Choo's diction is superb, adding great appeal to his performance and his various duets are well-calibrated but it's in his final scene, as Robert awaits execution, where raw emotion escapes in one of the night's poignant highlights.

With her privileged position, noble femininity and pure top notes, creamy mezzo-soprano Danielle Calder is exquisite as Sara, Robert's lover and the queen's rival. Warm baritone Phillip Calcagno journeys through his initial backing for his friend Robert and subsequent betrayal by his wife Sara with focused and natural step as the Duke of Nottingham. In minor roles, Jason Wasley and Eddie Muliaumaseali’i add a tier of sound support as Lord Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh respectively. Gorgeously harmonised with a spring in delivery, a well-prepared Melbourne Opera Chorus light the evening splendidly despite their sometimes incomprehensible content.

It takes a while acclimatising to the Athenaeum's dry acoustic but, apart from an occasional blemish, the Melbourne Opera Orchestra made a fine soundscape, conducted with vigour by Greg Hocking. Once the perplexing overture is over, Donizetti's wonderful dramatic momentum and transitions take flight. Of note, Act 3's opening string playing produced a breathtaking introduction to Robert's isolation and the timpani and piccolo always amazed with their well-executed presence.

Melbourne Opera's year is almost over and the signposts point towards potentially even greater rewards for its artists and audience in 2018. It's time our government recognises that too.

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