Roberto Devereux - Opera Holland Park, 2 June 2009
Why were the Holland Park police out in force on Tuesday night? Perhaps they'd been tipped off that a duke, a dame and a queen might be lurking in the shrubbery.
The duke was the music-loving Duke of Kent. He was joined in the stalls by Dame Joan Sutherland, whose husband Richard Bonynge was the evening's conductor. She snuck in quietly at the start, but someone clocked as she took her seat after the interval, and a few claps turned into an affectionate mass standing ovation. The queen was Elizabeth I of England, or Elizabetta as Donizetti has her, regally portrayed by Majella Cullagh in ginger wig, windbreaker ruff and a farthingale big enough to conceal a basket of puppies. And white popsocks, but I don't think we were supposed to notice those.
Yes, Lindsay Posner has set Roberto Devereux as a Tudorbethan extravaganza in the Blackadder II style. Ruffs, doublets, breeches and thigh boots as far as the eye could see, though thankfully we were spared the codpieces. Peter McKintosh's set cleverly incorporated the auditorium's Jacobean backdrop, Holland House, behind a checkerboard floor, and Peter Mumford's flaming braziers and candles flickered atmospherically as night fell. If it hadn't been for the screaming peacocks and squealing kids competing for attention outside the tent, you could almost - almost - imagine yourself in the sort of opera house where they applaud the scenery (no names).
The high-panto flavour unfortunately underlined how Donizetti's eminently hummable tunes tend to strain against his searingly dramatic text ("you treacherous woman!" ~~pom tiddly pom~~ "I don't want tears, I want blood!"~~rum tiddly tum~~). And once they'd got over their first act nerves, the cast launched into a display of scenery chewing Joan Crawford would have been proud of. It was hard to engage with on a serious level, but I admit to finding it shamelessly enjoyable.
Whatever the doubts about the production, the musical quality was high. Richard Bonynge's steady pacing rarely dragged, and he always allowed the voices to shine through the difficult acoustic, despite the small size of some.
Majella Cullagh's secure grip of bel canto line carried her from regal authority to venomous rage. A little self-contained in the first act, she truly let rip after the interval, starting with a powerful slap to Devereux's cheek and ending with tearing off her wig to reveal the balding grey tufts of Wig#2 beneath.
Leonardo Capalbo's Devereux, though sometimes underplayed and undersung, displayed an attractive light, ringing tenor. His lack of chemistry with Yvonne Howard's dignified and gracefully-sung Sara was a major directorial weak spot. Julian Hubbard's Duca di Nottingham was capable though short on physical and vocal presence. Smaller parts were well taken, but the chorus was disappointingly weedy. It can't be easy for anyone to perform in front of THE Dame though, and I suspect all will improve as the run continues.