Drama Queen

As the New York City Opera’s current diva in residence, Lauren Flanigan has fearlessly exercised her options with challenging repertory choices and a caution-be-damned performance style. Now, risking it all, she has taken on Queen Elizabeth in the company’s new production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, a role that makes huge vocal and dramatic demands on any singer. Not only that, but nearly everyone in town still associates the part with Beverly Sills, even those who never saw that local legend in this or any other opera.

Well, life goes on, and Roberto Devereux is too good a vehicle to be retired along with a famous interpreter. Elizabeth is worthy of being ranked with Norma as one of the great bel canto roles, even if the score as a whole never quite reaches the level of Bellini’s masterpiece. Of course the libretto plays hob with history, but that hardly matters. The aging queen’s dalliance with the Earl of Essex and the latter’s execution were real enough, but not much else is: the Duke of Nottingham’s evil plotting; the amorous intrigues involving the Duke’s wife, Sarah; and the distraught queen’s virtual abdication after Devereux’s beheading. But what a role for an inspired singing actress! Elizabeth’s volatile character is mirrored in vocal lines of extraordinary depth and expressive range, especially in the lurching intervals and spiraling melodies of her final aria as she obsesses over Roberto’s headless corpse and her own guilt in the tragedy.

I doubt that Flanigan is the sort to be intimidated by whatever memories audiences might have of her predecessor. This soprano has more pressing realities to grapple with here, and one of them is the suspicion that, for all her versatility, bel canto may not be her strongest suit. A technically resourceful, musicianly singer who shrewdly judges the dramatic effect of every note, Flanigan is at her best during the confrontational scenes of Act Two, when she can use the weight and distinctive color of her soprano to exciting effect. What’s missing is a lack of pliancy in the more florid passages, coloratura éclat when that is needed, and the ability to float tones effortlessly on the breath during sustained, soft legato singing – the basic virtues of a classically organized voice, in short, and essential for any interpreter of Italian bel canto opera.

Aside from the vocal hurdles, Flanigan must also contend with Mark Lamos’s perverse production, inscrutable on the one hand and maliciously interventionist on the other. Andrew Lieberman’s unit set resembles the garish lobby of a shiny cinema multiplex, with gloriana spelled out vertically in red lightbulbs on one side. Portraits and cardboard cutout figures of the queen at various stages in her life pop up here and there, and a lit-up marquee advertising elisabetta hovers over the roped-off throne area – one half-expects a royal ticket-taker to materialize at any moment.

Perhaps this is meant to symbolize Elizabeth the woman trapped in the theater of her public life; if so, the device went haywire at some point in the planning stages and the results look idiotic. Worse, Lamos further hamstrings Flanigan by requiring her to behave like a mechanical, white-faced mannequin before becoming unhinged during her moment-of-truth finale. I’ve never seen an important singer so sabotaged by a more misconceived, out-of-control production – no wonder the team responsible for it all lacked the courage to take curtain calls on opening night.

The other three principals merely coped, never indicating that they might have been capable of better things in a more reasonable theatrical context. Fernando De La Mora was utterly faceless as Roberto, Jane Dutton made little vocal capital of Sarah’s music, and Mark Delavan mostly bellowed as Nottingham, all of them neither helped nor hindered by George Manahan’s band-masterly conducting. The City Opera may, as the ads tell us, be on an artistic roll, but its successes to date have been mostly imports, preexisting productions of proven excellence – no chances taken there. It’s a shame that the company continues to have such bad luck with its own in-house projects, and Roberto Devereux is only the latest disappointment.

The faithful sent up shouts of delight when they heard that Beverly Sills’s recordings of Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy would soon be reissued on seven CDs from Decca. The on-and-off-again availability of Sills’s recorded legacy is as mysterious as its quality is spotty. Despite her sudden fame at home in the late sixties, no major international record company was willing to record her at the time, and most of her early opera sets came out on ABC, a pop label. Family money, it was said, made the recordings possible (a claim vigorously denied by the family), and if so, a private fortune must have been spent: The orchestras, conductors, and supporting casts are all top-rank, and the original issues, apart from cheap vinyl pressings, could not have been more elegantly presented.

For some, including the diva herself, Sills’s roles in Roberto Devereux, Maria Stuarda, and Anna Bolena represented the crowning achievements of her career. I respectfully disagree. For me, her best years came a decade earlier, when she excelled as Baby Doe, Cleopatra, the Queen of Shemakha, Lucia, and Manon, lyric-coloratura parts all sung before a media creature named Supersills arrived on the scene and began to lose her voice along with the spirit that made it glow. Even Sills admits that the effort it cost her to sing the three Donizetti queens probably shortened her vocal life, and one can chart the damage on these performances recorded between 1969 and 1972.

Roberto Devereux is the earliest and represents her best work on the set. The opening aria is bewitching for its delicate tracery, breath control, and easy virtuosity – Sills studied with a pupil of Mathilde Marchesi, and much of that legendary teacher’s classic bel canto training was obviously passed on to Sills. Later, though, as Sills tries to fill out the big phrases and put more weight on her voice than it will bear, the tone turns strident, and the dramatic utterances begin to sound like the tantrums of a petulant soubrette. What a pity that there is so little recorded evidence of this remarkable voice when it was in its prime, functioning in peak condition, and addressing the music it sang best.

Drama Queen