Stephen Lawless’ production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux opened last night at the Four Seasons Centre. It’s the last of the so called “Tudor Trilogy” and deals, ostensibly, with the last days of the reign of Elizabeth I. Events are loosely based on history. In this case the queen’s relationship with Robert Devereux, earl of Essex; his failure in Ireland, fall from grace, rebellion and execution for treason(1). Here the drama is turned into a simple story of royal jealousy featuring two fictional characters; The duke of Nottingham, Devereux’ bestie, and his wife Sara, confidante of the queen and in love with Devereux. It’s probably best seen as a logical continuation of the anti Tudor theme of the previous operas. There’s a bombastic, lustful monarch more concerned with his/her love life than affairs of state and there’s a scheming arch-Protestant minister responsible for the death of someone who doesn’t deserve for it for reasons of state (here the younger Cecil). The trouble here is that there is no obvious martyr. However one looks at it Devereux, brings about his own downfall.
So, we have an opera based on a conception of Elizabeth and her place in English history that is diametrically opposite to the English school book and popular view. Lawless uses this to frame his production concept. He sets the whole thing in the Globe Theatre. Now, this isn’t just any old “theatre within a theatre” concept this is staging Donizetti’s anti-Tudor propaganda in the space that was used, iconically, for presenting Shakespeare’s pro-Tudor propaganda. In case that’s not obvious enough, Lawless has Willy S stage a pageant of the realm during the overture featuring, inter alia, the Faerie Queen single handedly destroying the Great Armada. Sundry monarchs also get wheeled on stage in glass cases; a feature which is repeated at the end as Elizabeth resigns her life and announces the James of Scotland will be her successor. Between the overture and the finale we basically get a straightforwardly narrated romantic melodrama. There are some effectively staged moments such as the moment of Essex’ death but it’s otherwise close to a concert in costume and rather anonymous, not Elizabethan, not really anything else costumes they are! Also, a synopsis is projected before each scene. I liked that but wondered why those texts kept referring to the earl of Nottingham when he’s referred to a duke throughout the libretto.
The success, or otherwise, of the evening was going to turn on the singing and particularly on Sondra Radvanovsky making her role debut as the queen. She didn’t disappoint. Every moment she was on stage was electric. She took risks. She wasn’t afraid to make ugly sounds as she portrayed the bitter, old queen’s(2) anger and disappointment. But she also produced some gorgeous tone where she needed it. All round it was the diva performance a diva vehicle needs and fully justified its rapturous reception. She got top notch support from the tenor singing Devereux; an unknown I suspect to most of the audience. Leonardo Capalbo has that bright, ringing Italianate sound the music needs. The role doesn’t need the complexity of the queen and his heroic top notes sounded just right for the impetuous, youthful Devereux. The Nottinghams were played by Allyson McHardy and Russell Braun and they were fine though rather overshadowed by Radvanovsky and Capalbo. Among the minor roles the standout was Owen McCausland as the sinister Cecil. He can do evil beyond his years while sounding very lovely indeed. The orchestra and chorus were excellent and conductor Corrado Rovaris supported the singers sympathetically as well as making the rather curious overture sound really rather interesting.
The audience reception was overwhelming. It was the longest, loudest ovation I’ve heard in a long time. I enjoyed it but not to that extent. I’ll probably go see it again for the singing but it didn’t really make me a convert to Donizetti’s “historical” works(3). If they are your thing this is probably a production you don’t want to miss. If you do go, and unless you are really close to the stage, I suggest opera glasses. I forgot mine and I think I missed some details that would have been worth a look.
(FN2) A different type of bitter, old queen than we usually meet at the opera house.
(FN3) For a more complex take on Roberto Devereux that got closer to converting me see this DVD.