With Fewer Production Vagaries Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux Blazes Forth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Gaetano Donizetti, Roberto Devereux: (sung in Italian with surtitles in English and Welsh) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera (on tour), Christian Capocaccia (conductor), Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno, 22.11.2013  (RJF)

Queen Elizabeth, Alexandra Deshorties
Roberto Devereux, Earl of Essex, Leonardo Capalbo
Sara, Duchess di Nottingham, Leah-Marian Jones
Guglielmo Cecil, Geraint Dodd
Duke of Nottingham, David Kempster
Gualtiero Raleigh, William Robert Allenby
Nottingham’s servant, Stephen Wells
A page, George Newton-Fitzgerald

Director, Alessandro Talevi.
Designer, Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer, Matthew Haskins

There were no late cast alterations for this performance, just Christian Capocaccia on the rostrum for the second time for this the final instalment in this Tudor trilogy presented by Welsh National Opera. His conducting of one of Donizetti’s longest overtures, with its many colours and innate vibrancy quickly established that the orchestra were in capable hands. The overture was added for the Parisian premiere in 1838 given as a prelude to his first Paris opera, Les Martyrs, a revision of Poliuto censored in Naples. Musically Roberto Devereux is without doubt the most through composed and complex in orchestration of the three works of this Tudor trilogy. Gone are the longeurs and lingering melodies of Lucia, also premiered in Naples a mere two years and six operas before, albeit that two were first presented at Naples’ Teatro Nuovo. The orchestration points towards Donizetti’s readiness for the challenges of composing for Paris and his appointments and works for Vienna

Roberto Devereux was written in the most fraught period of the composer’s personal life that saw another stillborn child, the third consecutive post partum death his wife had suffered. Worse was to follow with her own demise a few weeks later from the complications of measles. Both deaths were possibly connected to the syphilis that Donizetti carried, and doubtless transmitted to his wife before the tertiary stage of the disease caused his own mental deterioration, paralysis, institutionalisation and early death, aged only 51, ten years later.

Whilst not denying Lucia’s popularity, it has not the musical cohesiveness found in Roberto Devereux that in many ways relates to the earlier Anna Bolena (1830). Certainly by the mid 1830s, and in full command of his dramatic gifts, Donizetti had begun to subordinate mere vocal display to the needs of the drama. Cohesiveness and dramatic intensity are the strengths of the qualities of Roberto Devereux. Though originally pampering to the 19th century Italian romantic taste for tales of Tudor England, which allowed for period costumes, Kings, Queens, dungeons and great romantic passions, in reality the plot was taken from a French tragedy by Jacques Ancelot. As I noted in my reviews of the previous operas in this trilogy as presented by WNO, there is no room for such fripperies! The common black stage set is only lightened at the start by a large illuminated aquarium with an arachnid and its legs clearly visible. In the final acts the concept of the all-encompassing claws of the Queen is highlighted by a large metal mechanised octopedal structure. The Queen, astride it, surveys her empire, much as a tank commander in the films of the battle of El Alamein surveyed the battlefield. Despite that concept of her all encompassing powers, Elisabeth is unable to prevent the death of her lover. Thankfully Alessandro Talveli, also the director of Anna Bolena, does not resort to the aberrations inflicted on Maria Stuarda. However, I suspect the cost of the mechanical crab could have enabled this triptych to be far better costumed.

In simple form the plot concerns variations on a normal operatic love triangle. Queen Elisabetta loves Roberto, who in turn loves Sara. The Queen forced Sara to marry the Duke of Nottingham whilst Roberto was away fighting in Ireland. On his return Roberto is accused of treachery and threatened with death by Parliament. The queen assures him that if ever his life is in danger he has only to return a ring she had given him so as to ensure his safety. Roberto subsequently gives the ring to Sara in an exchange of tokens. Her husband, who believes her guilty of infidelity with his erstwhile friend, prevents Sara from delivering it to the queen. Meanwhile in a powerful prison scene Roberto awaits his release on delivery of the ring. By the time the queen discovers the reason for the ring’s non-arrival Roberto has been executed. In a perversion of history, as Elisabetta despairs at the execution of Roberto, she concedes her throne to James.

In this production the Queen is portrayed as aged. Unlike previous queens as portrayed here she was in colourful dresses too. She entered and walked with a clear unsteadiness of gait to the extent that in my area of the audience there was much discussion as to whether soprano Alexandra Deshorties had a disability. This debate was only silenced by her sprightly arrival at the curtain! Other signals as to Elisabeth’s age were evident in her white bouffant hairstyle. Vocally, Miss Deshorties started poorly but rapidly improved whist always being somewhat thin of tone at the top of the voice. This was no such problem with the tenor of Leonardo Capalbo in the title role. Costumed in indeterminate style, he could have passed as a contemporary biker! His slightly husky tenor had no difficulty with the tessitura of Come uno spirito angelico (your wife is pure) whilst his acted portrayal added to the drama as Roberto is held in prison, sentenced to death vainly awaiting the arrival of the ring in possession of Sara, Duchess di Nottingham. Leah-Marian Jones’ portrayal of that role by was outstanding in both singing and acting. David Kempster as her implacable husband, who denies her the opportunity to get the ring to the Queen, was equally strong vocally whilst his acted portrayal was greatly aided by his stage presence.

Here, and throughout this Donizetti Tudor trio, the chorus of WNO were quite magnificent vocally whatever they were wearing or required to portray. If only I could look forward to Verdi’s famous choruses in Nabucco without trepidation as to how the opera will be staged and costumed!

PS. A pleasant addition to the season of Donizetti operas, and at modest cost, was a talk on the afternoon of Roberto Devereux by Francesco Izzo of the University of Southampton. He spoke on the composer, bel canto and specifically the three operas of the Tudor Trilogy.  An erudite musicologist and musician, he illustrated his talk with photographs of programme covers and theatres as well as with musical examples played by himself on the piano whilst his also taking various singing parts. Well attended, it was an enjoyable, instructive and entertaining hour and a half at the end of which he took questions.

Robert J Farr

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