Music: Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto: Salvadore Cammarano
Director: Alessandro Talevi
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
A stunning revival for Welsh National Opera’s take on Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux – one of the least known of the great composer’s operatic works (over seventy in total). Definitely a case of “last is best” for WNO’s presentation of the third of the so-called ‘Tudor Trilogy’, despite being a darker work than the previous two (Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda), and a great finale to both the home ground season and artistic director David Pountney’s time here.
With the historical background of the reign of Elizabeth I, the opera centres around the monarch’s love for Robert, Earl of Essex, who has been accused of treason. Desperate to escape the death penalty, all he needs to do to escape that terrible fate is to present the ring the Queen has given him. Not as simple as it sounds: The Earl is secretly in love with Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, the wife of his best friend. The tragic ending has had audiences on the edge e of their seats for decades.
And deservedly so. This is tragic opera at its best, and WNO rises to the challenge superbly, from the overture, with its tongue in cheek use of God Save the Queen, under the baton of Carlo Rizzi, and the appearance of the steadfastly splendid chorus of the WNO, booted and corseted (costumes owe their provenance to Vivienne Westwood), on stage. Donizetti’s Queen Elizabeth I is hardly the innocent Virgin Queen of the history books; instead, we have a scarlet-clad Elisabetta (librettist Salvadore Cammarano’s name for her) in a dress with a plunging neckline that would not be out of place in Carmen or Manon.
Joyce El-Khoury as the Queen projects a woman in some respects like any woman in love – and yet unlike any other woman. She is the Queen and capable of exacting a vindictive and terrible revenge when she discovers her lover has been unfaithful to her. She may not control who her man loves – but she has the final say in whether he lives or dies. While bringing out the high emotional content of the role, El-Khoury at times underplays the royal bedrock of her subject in the first half, but rises superbly to the considerable vocal challenges of the role in both her solo arias and the Queen’s duets with Robert in the second half, with a spine-tingling solo aria, Vivi, ingrato as the curtain falls.
Which brings us to the Robert – or Roberto – of the title. Barry Banks has a pleasing tenor heard to effect both in his solos and duets with El-Khoury, but can be somewhat overwhelmed at times when pitted against the strong baritone of Biagio Pizzuti’s Duke of Nottingham. Enveloping the tenor in a massive near-floor length coat didn’t help.
Justina Gringyté, in the role of Sara, gives throughout a sympathetic portrayal and shows a remarkable ability to reach a high register even whilst wearing a tight corset. Her asymmetrical duet with Pizzuti at the opening of Act III, is particularly worthy of mention, Gringyté’s clear soprano both contrasting and blending with Pizzuti’s resonant baritone.
A clever set, with one or two provisos – while the allusion is obvious, the spider-and-the-fly (not to mention captive butterflies) in the glass display case as the opera opens is a distraction rather than an asset. But the spider’s web bearing the Queen aloft (similar to a scaffold) as the curtain falls on a heart-rending ending is inspirational.
Runs until 2nd March 2019 | Image: Bill Cooper