Sometimes when it comes to deciding how to stage an opera, whether in a traditional style or otherwise, it’s more than enough to just set the scene in as simple a fashion as possible and let the work speak for itself. This can be tricky in the case of a bel canto opera, particularly with Donizetti and certainly with his Tudor trilogy of operas (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux), where there is often not a great deal going on dramatically. Many directors will try to cover up the lack of dramatic action with elaborate sets and costumes, but not Christof Loy. Even though there isn’t indeed a great deal to the sets here in this 2005 production for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and, yes, even though it is inevitably taken out of its original historical Tudor setting, Loy nonetheless clearly recognises where the real strengths of the work lie and gives them prominence through attention to character and the acting performances, particularly in how they are expressed through the singing.
Roberto Devereux (or Roberto Devereux, ossia Il conte di Essex [Roberto Devereux, or the Earl of Essex]) is a tragedia lirica, or tragic opera, by Gaetano Donizetti...
This DVD preserves a very good performance from the 2006 Bergamo Musica Festival. Dimitra Theodossiou portrays Elizabeth as the aged and imperious queen she was. She has the power to make the character believable and the softness for the lover who fears she has been rejected for a rival. She copes easily with the florid music in a range extending over two octaves; I was particularly impressed that the lowest notes in her role are sung as well as those above the staff.
Beverly Sills has said that Elizabeth I in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux was the role that took 10 years off her career, and indeed, it’s a fearsome undertaking. It is very long, it encompasses a slightly larger than two-octave span, there are forte passages at both ends (in ensembles and alone), and the sheer number of notes the character has to get out is awe-inspiring. Emotionally, too, the part is ripping: The elderly Elizabeth, in love with the young Earl of Essex who in turn loves Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham (forget real English history), is a ferocious monarch, comfortable and powerful only when ruling, and, in private, a shattered woman filled with vulnerabilities and doubts. It’s a truly tragic figure Donizetti has given us, and when Sills first appeared in the role at the New York City Opera in 1970, it cemented her reputation as one of the world’s greatest singing actresses. (Montserrat Caballé and Leyla Gencer performed it in Europe at approximately the same period, and while their readings are poignant and special in the way that only they can be, Sills gets deeper into the character and sings all of the notes–and then some–more accurately than either.)
A lyric tragedy in three acts by Gaetano Donizetti, libretto by Salvatore Cammarano. Roberto Devereux was composed in the summer of 1837, the year, according to biographers, in which Donizetti seems to have suffered most, having lost his third son and his adored wife Virginia Vasselli. The opera made its debut at the San Carlo Theatre in Naples on October 28th in the same year and was a great success. The rehearsals of the original performance were postponed for a month due to censorship of the decapitation scene of the leading actor.
Roberto Devereux, the last and probably the greatest opera Gaetano Donizetti composed for the San Carlo Opera House in Naples, is based on the intense, tangled relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, who was beheaded for treason in 1601. The role of the queen is one of the strongest in the bel canto soprano repertoire. In this video (essentially a New York City Opera production transplanted to the Filene Center at Wolf Trap performing arts center outside Washington, D.C.), Beverly Sills gives one of the great performances of her career. She had been singing the role in New York for several years, to great critical acclaim, and had made it her own, though her voice was beginning to lose some of its freshness when this performance was filmed in 1974…–Joe McLellan
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