When Gaetano Donizetti composed Roberto Devereux — the third and last of his operas featuring Queen Elizabeth I — he had experienced several recent losses including the deaths of his wife, two children, and parents, all within a year. He poured this grief into the deeply sensitive music that depicts the suffering of the aging Queen caused by the apparent betrayal of her beloved commander, Roberto.
Donizetti is recognized as a master of Bel Canto, with its vocal ornamentation, agility, vibrato, glissando, and precise demands on breath and register control — a style of expression dedicated to vocal technique of its soloists. Although not created as a trilogy, he wrote operas about three queens in that style, now known as the Tudor Trilogy – Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and the Earl of Essex, Roberto Devereux. Elizabeth is the main character in all, but each of the operas is named after its victim.
Roberto Devereux, (tenor, Ramon Vargas, The Tales of Hoffmann, La Traviata) has disobeyed Elizabeth’s orders in the Irish battlefield and has been charged with treason by Parliament. Although he is more than 30 years her junior, the Queen has interpreted Roberto’s friendship and flattery as romantic, and has even given him a ring that serves as get-out-of-jail card if he’s ever in trouble. Confident of the Queen’s protection, Roberto also has a great ally and defender in the Duke of Nottingham (baritone, Quinn Kelsey, Rigoletto, La Boheme). But unbeknownst to Elizabeth and Nottingham, Roberto has been involved with Sara (Ashley Dixon, Carmen, Hansel and Gretel), Nottingham’s heartbroken wife. As Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham, Dixon displays her velvety, richly-colored mezzo-soprano with beauty and urgency to illuminate her character’s desire and anguish. Her husband grows concerned about her strange behavior as she spends hours alone and crying while knitting a blue scarf with gold embroidery. It appears everyone’s in love with Roberto Devereux!
The Queen is ever-suspicious of a rival for Roberto’s affections, and learns of their clandestine romance thanks to the discovery of the blue scarf in Roberto’s apartment. Though she commands Roberto to be sent to the Tower to await his sentence, she cannot fathom why he hasn’t used the ring to seek his pardon. Roberto, of course, has given the ring away to Sarah as a pledge of his love. Sarah rushes to see the Queen with the ring in an attempt to save Roberto from death, but is too late. The betrayed Duke has intentionally delayed her arrival until after Devereux’s execution.
Stephen Lawless (Don Pasquale, The Marriage of Figaro) brilliantly directs this production of Donizetti’s opera and takes advantage of the Queen’s notorious love of the English arts, including her patronage of William Shakespeare. The curtain rises on Benoît Dugardyn’s opulent set, which artfully captures an Elizabethan theatre, one which continues to evolve seamlessly from scene to scene as it morphs from theatre to bedchamber to the courts. Costume design by Ingeborg Bernerth are a feast for the eyes and fit for the queen. The production provides plenty of Bel Canto singing to honor composer and company alike, with conductor Eun Sun Kim (La Traviata, Salome) executing a masterful and well-balanced performance, bringing out dramatic intensity while never overwhelming vocal lines.
As a late replacement for the originally scheduled Spanish soprano Davinia Rodriguez, who had to withdraw from the production due to illness, Nicola Bowie (Fidelio, Madama Butterfly), “acted” the role of Elizabeth and made a realistic Queen, in full command of her acting range as she transformed from commanding monarch to the haggard figure diminished by Essex’s betrayal. Regal before her court, she is frail, tremulous, and vengeful in private — fueled by her whims and desires, and burdened by the legacy of her father, Henry VIII.
But the true star of the evening was soprano, Angela Meade (Don Giovanni, Norma) who stepped in as the ”voice” of Elizabeth. Miss Meade, from a dark side of the stage, sung with poignant beauty and electrified the audience, receiving the biggest standing ovation of the evening. This tale of love, lust and betrayal in the Tudor royal court strays a long way from history, but makes a sensational plot. Add Donizetti’s evocative music, dramatic lyrics by librettist Salvatore Cammarano, and the brilliant cast, and it becomes timeless.
— Victor Riobo
LA Opera’s Roberto Devereux is playing through March 14th. Tickets HERE.