How extraordinary is Mariella Devia. In 2006 she gave her final performances as Lucia di Lammermoor at La Scala, leaving the public astonished that she was saying goodbye to the role after witnessing the perfection of her voice at 58. The day after her 65th birthday she sang Norma for the first time — a role she had said only a few years previously that she would never take on — and continued to perform this most difficult of roles many times to great acclaim. Although she gave her farewell to the opera stage last May (as Norma) at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, it hasn’t meant that she has stopped singing opera – it was the fatigue of singing lying on the ground and pulling heavy dresses around the stage which made her finish performing in staged productions. Her voice is a marvel. Not because she’s 70, but because she still sings the bel canto repertoire as well as anyone else on the planet.
As part of the Donizetti Opera Festival in Bergamo (the town where Donizetti was born and where he chose to return to die) Devia sang three Donizetti queens: Anne Boleyn, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I. Being that the main theatre which bears Donizetti’s name is being renovated, the concert took place in the 200-year-old Teatro Sociale in Bergamo Alta which overlooks the lower city.
Aside from Anna Bolena where Devia sang the last scene up to and including “Al dolce guidami”, she sang the complete final scenes – a feat at any age. Not singing the final cabaletta of Anna Bolena allowed her to sing straight into Maria Stuarda without needing an interval to recoup. Giuseppe Sabbatini was the dynamic yet sensitive conductor leading the excellent Philharmonic Orchestra of the Brescia and Bergamo Piano Festival, which also played the sinfonias of all three operas. Tenor Sabbatini understands singers and singing intimately and it showed.
Devia showed off every ‘trick’ in the book, but always with her characteristic restraint, a trait that carried through to the applause when she seemed to say, “Well, what else did you expect!” and then, “Now I’m going home, ‘bye.” She is a no frills diva, yet dressing well and always turning out perfectly is obviously important to her. She’s something of a conundrum. I don’t know her, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the phrase, “The quiet ones are always the worst,” couldn’t be applied to her.
No frills maybe, but thrills abound. There is no sign at all from her face that danger lurks before a high note, she tosses them off like a middle-Cs with laser-sharp precision. Never is her intonation never less than spot on, she plays with diminuendos and crescendos even on the most uncomfortably placed notes, her low notes (which were never rich) are strong and unforced, the coloratura easy, and her legato line has an exquisite flow. This is such a rare treat that the packed house was ecstatic.