Bel canto is all about expressing emotions through a highly stylised language based on complex vocal technique. Although Donizetti was a pioneer in introducing a new dramatic logic in Romantic opera, the voice remains for him the ultimate instrument of musical theatre. The Teatro Real opened the season with an extreme specimen of this operatic style, Roberto Devereux, and entrusted the task to one of the last representatives of a glorious school of singing, Mariella Devia. The result was a vibrant night of bel canto, intensified by a fresh and intelligent production previously seen at Welsh National Opera.

Mariella Devia sings Elisabetta in the only way a light-lyric soprano could ever approach a role written for a drammatico d’agilità. Every phrase is carefully based on pure and nude technique: the timbre, which was never sumptuous, is trimmed to the bone, sharpened to the limit to keep its flexibility (at 67, it is amazing how she retains absolute control of her instrument). This conscious adaptation impoverishes the sound precisely in the medium range where a dramatic soprano should excel. Some long phrases in the terzetto that closes Act II and in “Quel sangue versato” definitely lacked vocal authority. Also the extreme low notes, sung with a brave but feeble chest voice, did not have their intended dramatic effect. Mariella Devia was nevertheless able to rise above this anticipated limitations and offered an extraordinary masterclass.

She started with a cold “L’amor suo”, where the light tempo dissipated the tender nostalgia of the piece, introducing the first traits of her original Elisabetta. In vivid contrast, the cabaletta was like a childish outburst, coloured with a touch of sadistic impatience for Roberto’s entrance. It was only in the duo with Roberto where she surrendered to sincere tenderness in “Un tenero core”, sung with perfect legato and clean mezzavoce. After discovering Roberto’s infidelity in Act II, she almost relished his betrayal and her scolding him became a confident exercise of power, enhanced with always well executed agilities and piercing high notes. The final scene, with an intimate and moving recitative that made clear her sincere love for Sara, crowned a glorious performance. The infinite legato in "Vivi ingrato” was matched by a perfect control of vibrato, and in “Quel sangue versato” she built up almost aching intensity through meticulous phrasing.

From Devia, one could reasonably expect this excellent vocal rendition, but her subtle and original dramatic creation came as real surprise. Thanks to the work with promising director Alessandro Talevi, she stayed away from the Romantic tradition and brought life to a dark and strange creature, a shrewd and fearsome spider who has lost her strength but who rules with deception: her throne was a giant metal spider, trapped in her own claustrophobic cage, well designed by Madeleine Boyd and reinforced by Matthew Haskins’ dark lighting. The production also succeeds at defining the four main characters with differentiated body-language: the spider-like Elisabetta, the manly and violent Nottingham, the pure and timid Sara and the heroic and easygoing Roberto.

Gregory Kunde made his debut at Teatro Real with a role that proved unsuited to exhibit his renewed virtues. His surprising vocal revolution in the last years has come at a price. The timbre sounds a bit worn-out and the passaggio notes are systematically sung in forte. Almost all the attempts to control volume produce guttural and unclean sounds, showing too much muscular intervention and overall hampering the legato. On the other hand, the top notes sound huge and liberated and the phrasing is always urgent and exciting. His prison scene was heroic rather than romantic, deprived of any sense of elegy and offering an oddly luminous Roberto amid a gruesome court.

Sara was superbly sung by Silvia Tro Santafé. Her clean, light mezzo-soprano suits perfectly to this role of seconda donna, and her candour and true love for Roberto was a soothing contrast to Elisabetta's scorn. Marco Caria stepped in for Mariusz Kwiecień as Nottingham and lack of coordination with the pit was evident in Act I. He sang correctly, with a beautiful baritone, especially in his entrance aria, but he proved insufficient as the role becomes more dramatic and violent in Act III.

Bruno Campanella gave a fine account of Donizetti’s masterpiece, introducing good dynamic contrast and always keeping up the rhythm of the performance with fresh tempi. The string section sounded in good shape in the introduction to the prison scene, the only moment when Campanella allowed a certain lyrical expansion. A poor entry of the horns in this interlude did not cloud a commendable performance of the whole brass section, which has a prominent role in the score.

This was most a promising start to the season, a first-class rendition of a neglected work and a joyful confirmation of Mariella Devia’s well-deserved place in bel canto history.