Who says opera isn’t hip? Just as Eminem made a splashy entrance at the MTV Video Awards with a posse of lookalikes, the New York City Opera floods the stage with a flock of Queen Elizabeth clones for its new production of “Roberto Devereux,” one of Donizetti’s fast-and-loose melodramas peopled by regal notables from English history.
Elizabeth was the first of Donizetti’s “three queens” famously sung at City Opera by Beverly Sills, then the house’s reigning diva, in the 1970s. For the company’s first production of the opera since then, Lauren Flanigan, a formidable presence at City Opera in her own right, inherits the ruff, the white powder and the arresting hairline, to say nothing of the role’s fierce vocal challenges.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the role itself and the long shadow cast by Sills’ celebrated performance that Flanigan is battling against. She’s also got a determined foe in Mark Lamos’ conceptual production, which places some burdensome constraints on her performance.
In a program note, Lamos, City Opera’s house director of late (he’ll have five productions in the repertory this season), says, “The world of this production is one of rigidity, hierarchy and status. It is Elizabeth’s world — one which advertises her glory … The diva rules, trapped in a design of her own making …”
When the curtain rises on Andrew Lieberman’s flashy set, we see the translation of the idea: Images of Elizabeth are everywhere. Small ones dot the checkerboard raked floor, giant ones peer out from behind the bold red panels that form the backdrop. “Gloriana” is flashed in red bulbs on a sign at stage left, and Elizabeth’s throne is a blue pedestal lit from within that sits under a theater-style marquee emblazoned with — you guessed it — the queen’s name.
Judy Levin’s costumes for the queen are massive, nearly immobilizing galleons in which Flanigan has been instructed (by Lamos presumably) to move like an action figure with limited options: A hand flicks out violently to be kissed and snaps back into position atop her skirt.
Point taken — Elizabeth is a woman trapped in a world orchestrated to reflect her glory as a queen that ultimately constricts her possibilities as a woman. And the opera’s by-the-numbers (and fictional) love triangle plot certainly cries out for creative interpretation.
But it’s hard to convincingly perform a three-hour musical drama inside the armor of a single concept, and that’s what the performers are required to do here. (It doesn’t help that the eye grows tired of looking at the lurid colors of Lieberman’s busy set, enhanced by Robert Wierzel’s neon lighting, and that the playing space is limited to a small triangle of stage space.)
Flanigan, who has not specialized in the demanding bel canto repertoire, meets the particular challenges of the genre formidably. She has power and control across the wide range required, and sang with commanding style and an exciting, piercing tone. It was not, however, an emotionally dynamic vocal performance — a certain singularity of sound made for a sometimes opaque rendering of the queen’s emotional states. The costuming and the concept may be partly to blame.
As Sarah, the queen’s rival for the love of the title character, mezzo Jane Dutton displayed a big, ripe-sounding voice that might, however, have been used with a little more discrimination.
Tenor Fernando de la Mora made a minimal impression as R.D., himself, aka the Earl of Essex. The standout vocal performance among the supporting players came from baritone Mark Delavan, who sang the role of Sarah’s wronged husband, the Duke of Nottingham, both robustly and sensitively.
The propulsive Donizetti melodies sparkled and hummed under George Manahan’s baton, but in the end the opera’s dramatic effectiveness — perhaps not overwhelming to begin with — was undermined by the monotony of the conceptual framework.
It was hard not to think that the performers, like Lamos’ Elizabeth, were also trapped in a design — not, however, of their own making.