On Saturday afternoon, April 16th, we went to see the Metropolitan Opera simulcast of Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto opera, Roberto Devereux. The story, by librettist Salvadore Cammarano, is very loosely based on the final days of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who was convicted of treason and beheaded in the reign of Elizabeth the First of England.
This romantic tragedy assumes that there was a deep passionate relationship between Devereux (sung by Matthew Polanzani) and the Queen (historically, he was a favorite for a time, but doubtful if more than that). Devereaux has been recalled from a military expedition against rebels in Ireland and charged with treason over his mishandling of the job. Parliamentary enemies, lead by Prime Minister Robert Cecil, Lord Burghley, have convicted him, but the Queen’s signature on his warrant of execution is required.
The Queen (Sondra Radanovsky) summons Devereux to a private audience. She guesses, correctly, that his affections have lit on another woman. She offers Devereux a deal, that she will pardon him if he tells her who her rival is. Devereux, fearing the Queen’s vengeance on the woman he loves, denies that he is in love with anyone. Stung, the Queen bids him leave and to think further.
Devereux goes directly to the house of Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham (Elena Garanca), the wife of his best friend, and the woman he is in love with. Sarah advises him to forget her and flee England. He agrees, and she gives him a token, a blue silk scarf embroidered with gold. In turn, he leaves with her a ring given him by the Queen as a sort of “get out of jail free” card.
Devereux’s loyal friend, Nottingham (Mariuz Kwiecen), argues on Devereux’s behalf to the Queen, but cannot get her to agree to excuse him. Devereux has been taken into custody, and the love token found in his possession. The Queen confronts Devereux with it in the presence of Nottingham, who recognizes it as his wife’s handiwork. Furious, he declares that he will have vengeance. Once again, the Queen demands to know the name of her rival. Devereux refuses, and she signs the death warrant, ordering his execution the following noon.
At home, Nottingham confronts Sarah, and orders his serving men to keep her from leaving so that she can’t take the ring he has found to the Queen.
In the tower, Devereux expects a messenger with his pardon to arrive any time. He hopes to live to prove that his love for Sarah was platonic and restore her reputation. Instead, the guards come to take him to the block.
The Queen has sent for Sarah to attend her which Nottingham has to allow. When Sarah arrives, she presents the ring to the Queen, and confesses that she is the rival for Roberto’s affections. Nottingham gloats that he is responsible for the arrival being to late to save Devereux, who has by then been executed. Raging, the Queen blames both of them for Devereux’s death, and calls down curses and punishments upon them. Declaring James of Scotland to be her heir, in this production, she dies.
The opera is here staged as a play within the opera, a memorial performed before Elizabeth’s tomb. There is an on-stage audience of Elizabethan courtiers, who are the chorus and supernumeraries as required.
The role of Elizabeth is a tour de force for Ms. Radanovsky, who this season has completed the difficult “hat trick” of performing the leading roles in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda; the so-called “three queens.” The role of Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux is a particularly difficult one, requiring great range and rapid fluctuations from high to low and back again. Ms. Radanovsky sang the role beautifully, not only with power and passion, but marvelous skill and control. She also acted exceptionally well. By the time of Roberto Devereux, Elizabeth was sixty-nine years old and suffering with an arthritic hip. Given her looming costumes, vampirically pale makeup, and lurching gait, Ms. Radanovsky makes Elizabeth a sort of Bride of Frankenstein haunting her palaces, monstrous without, as her ego and anger make her monstrous within.
Voicewise, she is well matched by the other principals, who make the most of Donizetti’s beautiful music. The duets between Sarah and Roberto, Roberto and the Queen, and Sarah and Nottingham, are particularly fine, as is Devereux’s aria in the tower, Come uno spirto angelico.
We thoroughly enjoyed this performance, which was excellent in all ways. The staging worked well, the costumes were beautiful, and the orchestra, conducted by Maurizio Benini, flawless to our ears.
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