Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux is based (even more loosely than most Donizetti historical operas) on the relationship between Elizabeth the First and the Earl of Essex. Unfortunately for Liz, Essex is in love with the wife of the queen’s bestie; the entirely fictional Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham, whose ducal husband is also Essex’ bestie. Got that? As the opera opens, Essex has been recalled from Ireland to face treason charges but is vigorously defended by Nottingham. Eventually the queen rumbles Essex and agrees to sign his death warrant. By now Nottingham has also figured out what is going on and ties up his wife to stop her delivering the token ring to Elizabeth that will force her to pardon Essex. Essex is executed and the queen goes mad, abdicating in favour of James VI and I (who has been hanging around all along) and then dropping dead from grief. Pretty much par for the Donizetti course really.
Christof Loy’s 2005 production for the Bayerische Staatsoper makes the most of the plot. The setting is contemporary and the court is made up of “suits”; male and female. The scene is set during the overture as a delivery boy rearranges the (British) papers (in English – odd for an Italian opera in a German house) in a sort of boardroom. Today’s edition of The Sun carries the headline “Devereux Back in Town – Seducer Returns”. In Act 2 the headline will change to “Off With His Head!”. An atmosphere of madness and violence permeates the production. After his condemnation, Devereux is kicked and punched repeatedly and is led to his death in a bloody torn vest and underpants. Similarly, Nottingham does actually bind, blindfold and gag his wife to keep her from the queen until, too late, she is released by the young James; a scruffy youth with a bad haircut whose identity isn’t revealed until the last few lines. The queen’s final madness is emphasised when she tears off the red wig she has been wearing up to this point to reveal just the few tufts of straggly grey hair of a very old woman. There’s actually more than a touch of Margaret Thatcher in her dotage about the whole thing. All in all, I think it makes for a more interesting drama than a traditional hose and doublets production.
The singing is uniformly excellent. The star is Edita Gruberova as the queen. She sings with wonderful control, power and style and really becomes quite incandescent in the mad scene at the end. She is very well supported by Roberto Aronica as Essex and Albert Schagidullin and Jeanne Piland as the Nottinghams. I haven’t heard any of them before but they are all stylish and idiomatic bel canto singers with good stage presence. Friedrich Haider conducts and keeps things moving along but I think this is a singers’ rather than a conductor’s opera.
The ubiquitous Brian Large directs for video and does a really good job. Close ups are not overdone and we get a good idea of what the production must have looked like in the house. It’s a DGG DVD in 16:9 video with choice of LPCM stereo or 5.0 DTS sound. The sound balance is fine and the picture is standard modern DVD quality.