Gaetano Donizetti, Roberto Devereux, (1837)
Based on: the play Elisabeth d’Angleterre by François Ancelot
Setting: England, 1598
Plot in 101 words or less: On this week’s episode of The Crown, Sara is sad—really sad—and Elizabeth is mad—really mad. Lord Cecil and his gang of (literal) peers are mad too. They’re plotting against the queen’s favorite, Devereux, who’s been playing footsie with those pesky Irish rebels. Devereux returns to plead his case but admits to Elizabeth he loves another and leaves her ring—the one that would guarantee his safety—with Sara, his best friend’s girl and object of his affections. Sara can’t get the ring back to him and so… off with his head! Should have found some hobbits. Or eagles.
As a self-proclaimed bel canto whore and lover of all things Tudor, I was bound to like Roberto Devereux, one of Gaetano Donizetti’s three “queen” operas, which, along with Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda, forms what is known as the Tudor Trilogy. But I liked it even more than I thought.
Of course, this is not really surprising as Devereux had another strong point in its favor with the teaming of soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham, who we last saw together on the War Memorial stage in Norma and on whom I rightly bestowed multiple Figaros for outstanding performance.
Radvanovsky was fantastic here, both in voice and in her acting. The woman next to me seemed absolutely convinced she was elderly. For my part, I was amazed by her ability to convey imperial majesty and temperament as well as a certain kind of frailty and vulnerability. Jamie Barton’s Sara was a lovely counterpoint to this fierce and fearless portrayal, singing with what seemed a heartfelt and melancholic resolve. Tenor Russell Thomas as the eponymous Devereux also sang beautifully, especially in his final moments behind bars in the Tower with “Come uno spirito angelico.” Adler Fellow Amitai Pati once again stood out in a small role, that of the devious Lord Cecil.
This production conducts an elaborate history lesson in the prologue, which I liked, but wasn’t really necessary. It might have been more helpful to the audience to have highlighted more specific emotional or political aspects of Elizabeth’s reign. That said, I’m always happy to see sailing ships.
Still, this emphasis on “history” seemed at odds with the set itself, which was designed by Benoit Dugardyn and based on Shakespeare’s Globe Theater—a choice that emphasized the performance nature of an opera that is not quite based on actual history. While this bare set mostly worked, it did lead to a few clunky staging efforts, such as the final execution and renunciation of the throne. Oddly enough, I liked the whole glass casing idea that opened and closed the opera.
The costumes by Ingeborg Bernerth were similarly uneven. I loved some of the elaborate dresses, but Sara seemed rather plain in comparison considering she was Duchess of Nottingham.
I realize this brief summary makes it seem like I didn’t like the production design, which is not the case, I just feel like it could have been more cohesive and less didactic somehow. Regardless, the singing was absolutely stellar.
In short, more Tudor queens, please!
There are only two more performances of Roberto Devereux at the War Memorial Opera House, on September 23 and September 27. Run, don’t walk, to see this incredible production!