DONIZETTI Roberto Devereux
Roberto Devereux was the third and last of Donizetti’s operas featuring Queen Elizabeth I. If no scene is quite as spine-tingling as the confrontation between the queens in Maria Stuarda, there’s enough love, jealousy and rage to make a gripping evening of high drama. Betrayed friendship, too: the trio where Nottingham discovers that Roberto and his wife are in love is as powerful as anything in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. And the musical subtleties are a delight: that same trio begins with a fidgety phrase in the orchestra that harks back to the preceding duet; while the end of Nottingham’s cavatina unexpectedly sideslips from F to A flat, regains the home key and then magically drives home his expression of friendship by repeating the phrase a semitone higher.
Monica Manganelli’s set design – steps leading up to a dais, with a latticed screen – is simple but effective. Gianluca Falaschi’s traditional costumes are handsome, with enormous ruffs for the chorus. The direction is straightforward, Alfonso Antoniozzi’s only surprise being the introduction of a jester who sits on Elizabeth’s throne during the overture and generally cavorts about thereafter. Perhaps his role is to illustrate Shakespeare’s ‘Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly’.
Roberto is, of course, the Earl of Essex, the queen’s favourite, and the story covers his (offstage) trial for treason and his execution. So far, so historical. But we also have the apocryphal story of the ring to be returned to Elizabeth if Essex needed her help; while the historical Nottingham was no friend, being responsible for his arrest. The young Romanian tenor Stefan Pop has a brave stab at the part but he belongs to what you might call the Carlo Bergonzi school of acting: gesticulation with one hand is followed by gesticulation with the other, before both hands come together. Sadly, he lacks Bergonzi’s elegance, breaking up a line that demands legato phrasing. As Nottingham (ie Charles Howard, the Lord Admiral), Mansoo Kim is not without some Bergonzi gesturing; but his accomplished baritone – warm, with a slight edge – is heard to good effect and he makes a believable, impassioned quasi-cuckold (alone in prison, Roberto asserts that Sara is angelically pure).
The ladies are superb. The opera begins with Sonia Ganassi as Sara, lyrically despairing in ‘All’aflitto’; later she is touchingly vulnerable when explaining to a furious Roberto how she was forced into marriage. And Mariella Devia is a miracle. Nearly 68 when this production was staged, she was the same age as the queen she was portraying. Imperious at the outset, grey-haired and witch-like at the end as she renounces the throne in favour of James VI of Scotland – an even wilder departure from history – Devia’s Elizabeth is mesmerisingly well done. The chorus and orchestra under Francesco Lanzillotta are good. The CD set sounds well but no libretto is included.