In Praise of Old Queens

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After four consecutive articles of tough love directed toward my adored Metropolitan Opera, I am glad to cast my gaze on another venerable institution, the Opera Orchestra of New York. This innovative and resilient troupe was founded by Eve Queler, who is conductor laureate. Since 1972, Queler and OONY have given New Yorkers concert operas in a combination of unusual repertory, great artists and new young singers who often have their star-making breakthroughs on nights when OONY performs. Such was the case with tenor Michael Fabiano in 2013’s I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata.

Opera Orchestra has had famous brushes with financial death but manages to rise, phoenix-like, to sing another day. Its recent struggles to survive are what could only be described as operatic. OONY returned on June 5 to Carnegie Hall with 83-year-old Queler (who is rich in experience but no dowager) in full command of a performance of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, one of the “Three Queens” operas (along with Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda). These are among the summits of the bel canto repertory – Beverly Sills sang all three works at the New York City Opera – and you only do them when you have a great soprano on hand. The Met is in the midst of presenting these and I gather that Roberto Devereux is coming soon with Sondra Radvanovsky as the elderly Queen Elizabeth I. I just heard her perform this role in Toronto and she was stupendous.

For Opera Orchestra’s performance, Queler enlisted the 66-year old Italian soprano Mariella Devia to play the old queen. Devia is in a category of two, along with Slovak Edita Gruberová (16 months older) as the reigning European coloratura sopranos of pensionable age who inspire delirious ovations. They are products of an older style of instruction and singing and the acclaim comes not because they are still standing but because they know what they are doing. It is interesting that they essentially divide the continent, with Gruberová owning Germany, Austria and Switzerland while Devia has Italy, France and Spain.

Few New Yorkers have heard Gruberová in their home town. She only sang 23 performances at the Met: two Queen of the Nights (in Die Zauberflöte) and seven amazing Zerbinettas (in Ariadne auf Naxos) in the late 1970s and then, between 1988 and 1991, five Lucias, four Violettas and five Elviras in I Puritani. I will hear her this summer in Munich and will report back.

I had heard Mariella Devia often when I lived in Italy in the 1970s and knew how special she was. She made her Met debut in Rigoletto on December 18, 1979 with Sherrill Milnes and Neil Shicoff (who recently turned 65 singing Hofmann in Vienna). I was in graduate school and brought a few classmates to the Met who had never been to an opera and they quickly became converts. They did not know voices could do that (and without amplification!) and were deeply moved by the story. I believe a good performance of Rigoletto is unbeatable for introducing someone to opera.

Devia sang 71 opera performances at the Met and in parks concerts between her debut and 1994 and appeared in three galas (the last a Mozart gala in 2006). Of these, 28 were Gildas, 17 Lucias, 15 Konstanzes in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, 7 Nannettas in Falstaff (in a production that included the debut of 69-year old Giuseppe Taddei in the title role) and four Despinas in Così fan tutte. She has sung before with Opera Orchestra, beginning with Lakmé in 1981 and most recently in Adelia (2000) at the age of 52. But the huge role of Elizabeth I, at any age but certainly at 66, is a whole other thing.

Her return to New York stimulated great discussion in the fan community. I saw Columbia students (which is what I was when I heard Devia’s New York debut) arriving with eager anticipation to be in the presence of an artist they might only know from recordings and YouTube. Many regular operagoers of all ages might have never heard her and then there were those who did hear Devia at the Met and wanted to see if she still had the goods.

There was also a sector of the fan base–the Opera Queens–who have been a bit scarce lately at the Met and other New York opera companies and their presence at Carnegie Hall was most welcome and indicated the level of importance of the comebacks of Queler, OONY and Devia–it was not just all about Eve. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an Opera Queen was almost always a gay man (usually of a certain age) who was knowledgeable, passionate and opinionated about opera and singers. The energy they brought made it special to be in an audience with them. They cheered, they discussed, they reacted; they made opera attendance exciting. Young audience members would listen and learn as the Queens opined and, at times, disagreed.

One could feel the buzz before the performance as people clamored for tickets outside Carnegie Hall. Ticketholders spoke with eager anticipation about what was coming and some audience members, including Opera Queens, told stories of earlier Queler and Devia performances in New York. The audience gave welcoming ovations to the artists, cheered lustily after arias and listened closely to everything.

There was an Opera Queen seated behind me who quietly but palpably responded to the beauty of the music, the drama of the story, the gloriousness of Devia’s singing, the attractive sound of Stephen Costello in the title role, the handsomeness and gorgeous voice of Serbian bass Sava Vemic in the very brief role of Walter Raleigh, and the passionate singing and elegant red dress of French mezzo Géraldine Chauvet as Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham. The reactions of this gentleman were not intrusive but served to focus my attention on things I might not have noticed.

The night was a triumph for all, but none more than Mariella Devia. Her singing is why we go opera. As she unleashed her final note, the audience of 2,700 sprang to their feet as one, as if ejected from their seats James Bond-style. I have never seen that before in any performance, not even with Nilsson, Sutherland, Pavarotti or Domingo. It made me proud to be a New Yorker and happy that I was in that audience and able to tell the tale.

Here is an audio version of Devia singing the final scene and aria from Roberto Devereux in Marseille 2011. If you were unable to hear Devia at Carnegie Hall, or even if you were there, you might enjoy this audio recording of her in a full performance of this opera earlier this year in Florence. Viva la Regina!