- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

The Washington Concert Opera made its triumphant return to Lisner Auditorium Sunday with a dazzling concert performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux.” Concert opera simply doesn’t get any better than this.

The last in Donizetti’s trilogy of operas dealing with English queens, “Roberto Devereux” is based loosely on Queen Elizabeth I’s long and probably nonsexual relationship with the much younger Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex. In real life, Essex was a headstrong adventurer who did more harm than good, but Elizabeth usually forgave him. That is, until he plotted in 1601 to overthrow her. The Virgin Queen was not amused, and Devereux’s troublesome head was soon removed.

Donizetti’s librettist rearranged history by having Elizabeth flip out over Essex’s fondness for Sara, wife of the Duke of Nottingham, and send him to the scaffold for that indiscretion. Then she is filled with remorse and vows to turn over her crown to her heir, James I, at the opera’s conclusion. So much for verisimilitude.

Unlike traditional grand opera, a concert setting allows the singers to be front and center for the entire evening — pure bliss for opera buffs who want to focus on the singing. For Sunday’s performance of “Roberto Devereux,” the Washington Concert Opera’s singers were on edge and ready to go. The orchestra, under the baton of Antony Walker, was sharp from the first downbeat. Aside from an early disconnect with the chorus, the entire company delivered an electrifying evening of opera.

Soprano Brenda Harris was a brilliant Elizabeth whose stunning bel canto instrument effortlessly negotiated Act I’s tricky vocal acrobatics. From tender interludes to thundering royal ragings, she was every inch a queen in command of her kingdom and this performance.

As Devereux, tall and trim tenor Tracey Welborn was a fortuitous last-minute substitute for the scheduled tenor, Stefano Secco. He stepped into the role with a mature voice, breathtaking in its depth, range and clarity. Veering between cocky self-assurance and trembling fear, his Devereux proved a worthy foil to Miss Harris’ awe-inspiring Elizabeth.

As the “other couple” — Devereux’s secret love, Sara, and her husband, the Duke of Nottingham — mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop and baritone William Stone sang their roles with equal perfection. Miss Bishop had the juicier part — with several challenging arias nearly as fiendish as those negotiated by Miss Harris — and she handled them just as well, with a burnished instrument of great dignity and scope. As Devereux’s best friend turned reluctant bad guy, Mr. Stone convincingly anchored the substantial ensemble numbers with clear low notes and precise diction.

Only one minor irritant marred this otherwise perfect performance. The chorus frequently was obliterated by the orchestra, a problem that could be solved in the future either by adding a few more voices or by pulling back the instrumental crescendos just a bit.

The Washington Concert Opera’s “Roberto Devereux” was a first-rate evening of opera with more than enough power and pizazz to send even the most jaded aficionado into another dimension. Unfortunately, this performance was a one-time-only event.

***

MAXIUMU RATING FOUR STARS

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