Considering the number of operas he set in Britain, Donizetti was surprisingly unfamiliar with the place – Emilia di Liverpool famously has characters, one of whom is the long lost “Count of Liverpool”, stopping off there on their way from London to Oxford. Roberto Devereux is the third of his so-called “queen operas”, after Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda, and consists of a rather loose retelling of the story of Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, her former favourite whom she had executed for treason.

Gaetano Donizetti; portrait by Joseph Kriehuber, 1842
Gaetano Donizetti; portrait by Joseph Kriehuber, 1842

Opera performed in churches often suffers from a splashy, echoing acoustic, but in this case in St Andrew’s Church, Holburn we had the opposite problem – the performance took place in a reclaimed vault underneath the church, the ceiling only a few feet above the performers’ heads. An accurate reconstruction of the circumstances of Donizetti’s birth, according to the pre-concert talk by K.E. Querns Langley, but not ideal for singing as it made for a horribly dry and unsympathetic acoustic, and required the performers to produce a full tone without the volume that would normally accompany it. As it was a concert performance, those singing simply stood at music stands facing the audience, with those not currently involved in the action on chairs behind. The (electric) piano was even further back, and I wonder if the singers could always hear it clearly – this might account for some of the pitching problems.

The performance started a little early as the talk hadn’t lasted as long as expected, which was a bit naughty as it meant some audience members missed the beginning. Concert performances in which singers are not directed but given the vague instruction to “interact with each other” tend to suffer from what Franco Zeffirelli used to call “general pained expression”, and tonight was no exception. Mind you, Sara, Duchess of Nottingham at least has reason to be pained – despite having settled for the Duke of Nottingham, she cannot forget her former lover Devereux. Enter the equally pained Queen Elisabetta, Devereux’s current (or at least more recent) love, but suspicious that he may be seeing someone else. She gives Devereux a ring as a pledge of her love, bidding him return it to her if he ever needs her help (a connection between Essex and signet rings which persists to this day...). But with Devereux about to be tried by Parliament for treason and the Queen and Duke of Nottingham his only supporters, his amorous excesses seem likely be his undoing.

Devereux was taken by Eric Reddet, who either has a small but perfectly formed voice or managed to cut his cloth well to the limited space – it would be interesting to see if he could maintain such warmth and focus without strain in a larger hall. Elisabetta was sung by Rochelle Hart. Her voice lives for the top notes of the role, which are thrilling – what a nice change not to be wincing when you know a top note is coming – but at the moment they’re like special effects not entirely integrated into the rest of her voice. She also suffered the occasional tendency to go on pitch safari, especially when unaccompanied for too long, and some of her lowest notes were more spoken than sung – sometimes for good dramatic effect, sometimes not.

Colin Reed as Cecil I think has a potentially good voice, though it doesn’t seem to be properly produced at the moment. Victor Sgarbi as Nottingham sang the whole time from the side of his mouth, as if the entire role were an aside to the audience that the other characters weren’t supposed to hear. Both vocally and physically, his manner was so histrionic that, combined with a large medallion (more Essex than Nottingham, surely?) and a pencil moustache grown since his headshot was taken, it made him look as if he should be wandering between tables at an Italian restaurant. Dmitry Yumashev had little more than a cough and a spit as Sir Walter Raleigh, but from what I could tell his voice was full, rounded and warm.

But vocal honours undoubtedly go to Benedetta Orsi as Sara, Duchess of Nottingham. A remarkably rich voice and seemingly a true contralto (albeit one who can manage a top B flat without difficulty), she could undoubtedly fill the largest hall but is also capable of a whispered pianissimmo. However, coloratura doesn’t seem to be where she’s most at home, and if I had one more quibble, it’s that she might try exploring the range between dynamic extremes a little more to deepen her characterisation.