Russell Thomas and Sondra Radvanovsky sing the lead roles in San Francisco Opera’s “Roberto Devereux.” (Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

San Francisco Opera triumphs with regal ‘Roberto Devereux’

San Francisco Opera has staged Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” just once, in 1979, but on Saturday, a new, glorious, instantly memorable production at the War Memorial Opera House more than made up for its long absence and rarity.

English director Stephen Lawless’ production raises the curtain on a set immediately recognizable as a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Splendid mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, as Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham, meltingly and sweetly expresses her guilt-ridden love for dashing Roberto Devereux, Earl of Essex. Her feeling of guilt is well-founded, because none other than the queen is also in love with Roberto.

Radiant soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta, Queen of England, arrives to command the stage and let it be known that while she loves Roberto, she suspects he has been unfaithful. Elisabetta may be an aging monarch on the frail side, but she remains royally imposing; Radvanovsky was superb in the role with vocally penetrating power, ravishing coloratura passagework and unyielding dramatic resolve.

As the object of both women’s desire, tenor Russell Thomas made an endearingly strong first appearance in the title role. He unfurled lyric charm and verve in his arias and duets, and was particularly moving seeking to defend Sara’s honor in the touching Act 3 aria “Como uno spirto angelico” delivered while being locked up in the Tower of London (an effectively staged scene).

While Thomas wins the audience’s sympathy, Roberto doesn’t redeem himself with his closest friend the Duke of Notthingham, who knows Roberto has been having an affair with his wife. Baritone Andrew Manea made a favorable impression as the Duke, singing with clarity, depth and compellingly expressing the range of the character’s emotions.

The Duke’s jealousy and rage over his friend’s betrayal propels Roberto toward an unfortunate fate, which is already imperiled by his questionable truce with Irish rebels — yet Elisabetta’s ire seals it.

In Act 2, Radvanovsky’s aching tenderness gives way to steely vengeance as Manea and Thomas join her for a beautifully rendered trio, “Un perfido, un vile, un mentitore tu sei” and she signs Roberto’s death warrant.

Radvanovsky’s queen, spent emotionally, and with her physically aged vulnerability now on full display, exquisitely delivers her aria of forgiveness “Vivi ingrato,” belatedly receives from Sara the royal ring she once gave to Roberto that Elisabetta promised him was the key to his salvation, and then stays his execution — all to no avail. In another nice staging effect, Elisabetta make a funereal-like exit from the throne and the stage in a glass and wood case.

Conductor Riccardo Frizza led the orchestra with insightful precision, while Ian Robertson’s opera chorus burnished the Tudor setting with magisterial grace.

Roberto Devereux
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 11, Sept. 14, Sept. 18 and Sept. 27; 2 p.m. Sept. 23
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330,

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