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ClassicsOnline Home » DONIZETTI, G.: Roberto Devereux [Opera] (Bergamo Musica Festival, 2006)
One of Donizetti’s most emotionally raw operas, Roberto Devereux ossia Il conte di Essex was also the third to be loosely based on episodes in the life of Queen Elizabeth I. It deals with the love of Elizabeth and her favourite, the Earl of Essex, perhaps most tellingly expressed in the Act I duet, Nascondi, frena i palpiti, o misero mio core / Hide, hold back your palpitation, oh my wretched heart! Elizabeth’s subsequent abdication is, however, a matter of dramatic licence, yet provides a memorable operatic conclusion to this tragedy of love and jealousy as she despairs at the death of her lover – Quel sangue versato al ciel s’innalza (The blood that is spilt rises up to Heaven). This inaugural production of the Bergamo Music Festival 2006 features the Greek soprano and leading Donizetti specialist, Dimitra Theodossiou, and the young American baritone Andrew Schroeder, both in superb voice.
By David Denton
Already issued on a Naxos DVD (see my review in David’s Review Corner, May 2008), the performance of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux comes from the stage of the 2006 Bergamo Music Festival, and features the fiery Greek soprano, Dimitra Theodossiou. Though of questionable historical accuracy, the opera relates Queen Elizabeth’s love for Robert, the Earl of Essex, only to find he is secretly involved in an affair with a married woman, Sara, Duchess of Nottingham. It offers Donizetti some highly charged scenes, Theodossiou firing-off her virtuoso arias with an honesty that may be short on subtlety, but high on octane and vocally athleticism.The final meeting with Robert, when she accuses him of being a traitor, though in fact wanting revenge for his spurning of her love, becomes a thrilling exchange. Without the visual distraction of the portly figure of Massimmiliano Pisapia, his Robert is musically persuasive, and has the weight to trade vocal blows with Theodossiou. As I commented when reviewing the DVD, I much like the voice of the American baritone, Andrew Schroeder, as the Duke of Nottingham, while Federica Bragaglia makes a limpid voiced Sara. The specially assembled Bergamo Festival orchestra and chorus are always satisfying under the direction of Marcello Rota. Though the sound is very well balanced, stage noises can be irritating, even more so the extended applause within acts. I would much prefer the highly recommended DVD (Naxos 2.110232), but it makes as attractive super-budget CD release. There is a synopsis but no libretto.
Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848)
Elizabeth, Queen of England - Dimitra Theodossiou
The Duke of Nottingham - Andrew Schroeder
Sara, Duchess of Nottingham - Federica Bragaglia
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex - Massimiliano Pisapia
Lord Cecil - Luigi Albani
Sir Walter Raleigh - Giorgio Valerio
A Page / A Servant - Tommaso Norelli
It is said that Donizetti was once asked if he thought it true that Rossini had composed Il barbiere di Siviglia in thirteen days. ‘Why not?’, he replied. ‘He’s so lazy.’ Whether true or not, the story points up Donizetti’s amazing industry. Rossini chalked up a total of 39 operas, including revisions and adaptations; Bellini, Donizetti’s great rival, a mere ten. But between 1816 and 1843, Donizetti composed no less than 65 operas; and there were pieces left unfinished, notably Le duc d’Albe, which as Il duca d’Alba was completed by other hands.
Gaetano Donizetti was born in Bergamo in 1797, the fifth of six children. He had the good fortune early on to attract the attention of the composer Simon Mayr, a Bavarian who was maestro di cappella at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Mayr had founded a free music school in Bergamo, to which the eight-year-old Donizetti was one of the first entrants. Thus he got a good grounding in theory and composition; he became an accomplished pianist, but his lack of proficiency in singing nearly led to his expulsion.
When Donizetti was almost eighteen, Mayr arranged for him to study with the elderly Padre Mattei in Bologna. Mattei was a distinguished pedagogue who had had Rossini among his pupils, and Donizetti must have benefited from his instruction; but it was Mayr for whom he felt affection and respect.
These feelings were mutual, continuing for the rest of Donizetti’s life. And it was Mayr who put Donizetti in the way of Bartolomeo Merelli, a librettist and, later, an impresario. The success of their fourth collaboration led to Donizetti’s being engaged by the impresario Domenico Barbaia, who ran the opera houses in Naples. Donizetti arrived in 1822, briefly overlapping with Rossini, and Naples was to be his principal operatic home until he moved to Paris in 1838. His comic masterpieces, L’elisir d’amore (1832) and Don Pasquale (1843), both well known today, were written for Milan and Paris respectively. Tastes change: until recently, Donizetti was celebrated more for his tragedies, the most famous being Lucia di Lammermoor (Naples, 1835).
Donizetti died in 1848, his last years clouded by illness and insanity. Roberto Devereux, first produced in Naples in October 1837, was composed at a desperately unhappy time: in July his wife Virginia had died, possibly of cholera, probably as the result of a syphilitic infection from her husband. Donizetti was heartbroken, and he never got over her death. But he pulled himself together in time to prepare a revised version of an earlier work and to supervise the rehearsals for his new opera.
Roberto Devereux was the third and last opera of Donizetti’s to feature Queen Elizabeth I, the others being Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth (Naples, 1829) and Maria Stuarda (Milan, 1835). The libretto was by Salvatore Cammarano, the resident poet and stage director for the Neapolitan opera houses. While Donizetti was in Naples he used no other collaborator, even for commissions from Venice. Cammarano was a skilled dramatist, but he played fast and loose with English history. Just as, in Lucia, it is a surprise to find that William III has predeceased Queen Mary, so in Roberto Devereux Queen Elizabeth appears to abdicate in favour of ‘Giacomo’ (James VI of Scotland, who did indeed become James I of England, but after Elizabeth’s death).
Scene 1: The great hall in the Palace of Westminster
 There is no overture (though Donizetti did write one for the Paris production in 1838, anachronistically incorporating ‘God save the Queen’). The ladies of the court comment on the unhappiness of Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham. Sara pretends that her sadness is due to the book she is reading about Rosamond, the mistress of Henry II.
 In her ‘romanza’, she contrasts her fate with Rosamond’s.
 Queen Elizabeth enters and the ladies retire to the back. Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, has been recalled from Ireland, accused of treason. Elizabeth is fearful of a different kind of betrayal: that Essex loves another woman. Sara trembles with fear.
 Elizabeth sings of Robert’s love, and of her misery should his heart no longer be hers.
 Lord Cecil, Sir Walter Raleigh and others enter. Elizabeth deflects Cecil’s reminder that Parliament has the right to pronounce judgment on Essex, and acquiesces to the latter’s request for an audience. Provided he loves her, she tells herself, he is innocent of any charge.
 Essex enters. Tellingly, Elizabeth greets him first as ‘Roberto’, then as ‘Conte’. Dismissing the courtiers, she questions him about the accusation of treason. Reassured by his answer, she then reminds him of the ring that she gave him: if he is in trouble he should send it to her.
 Elizabeth reflects on her earlier happiness, before trying to force Essex to admit that he is in love with another woman. He denies it once …
 … and a second time. Elizabeth leaves.
 The Duke of Nottingham enters. He is the friend of Essex as well as Sara’s husband. Their conversation moves swiftly to Nottingham’s unhappiness. The day before, unseen, he had watched Sara weeping and praying for death as she embroidered a blue scarf.
 Nottingham suffered pangs of jealousy, but now believes that angels like his wife are incapable of sin.
 On behalf of the Queen, Cecil summons Nottingham to a meeting of the Council. Soft chords in a distant key accompany his sinister explanation: ‘A sentence put off for too long.’ A simple phrase on the woodwind introduces Nottingham’s assurances to Essex of friendship and support.
Scene 2: The apartments of the Duchess in Nottingham House
 Sara is alone. Essex enters and reproaches her for having married. She miserably explains that her father died while Essex was away, whereupon the Queen obliged her to marry Nottingham. Essex affirms his love for Sara by flinging the Queen’s ring onto the table: an unwise gesture, as it turns out.
 Under pressure from Sara, Essex agrees to escape abroad.
 They part for ever, but not before Sara has given him the blue scarf: another bad move.
The Palace of Westminster
 Dawn has broken. Essex has not escaped. The lords and ladies discuss the trial and foretell his execution.
 Cecil informs Elizabeth that, despite Nottingham’s vigorous defence, Essex has been sentenced to death. In private, Raleigh tells her that Essex did not return home till dawn. Concealed on his body was the blue scarf, which Raleigh produces. Elizabeth is immediately suspicious.
 As Raleigh leaves, Nottingham enters with the death warrant. He begs for mercy on behalf of his friend. Elizabeth is adamant that Essex should die.
 Essex is brought in, under guard. Elizabeth shows him the scarf as evidence of his perfidy. Nottingham recognises it, and is appalled. The action freezes as all three take in the situation …
 … but explodes as Nottingham demands a sword for vengeance. Elizabeth mistakes the reason for his rage; she tells Essex that he will be spared if he names her rival. When he refuses, she signals for the courtiers to enter, and signs the death warrant. She dismisses Essex in a phrase that rises like a rocket, becoming even more intense when the key moves from minor to major.
Scene 1: The apartments of the Duchess
 The act opens with the orchestra recalling Nottingham’s ‘friendship’ aria in Act 1 (CD1, track 11). A soldier brings Sara a letter from Essex, begging her to save him by returning the ring to the Queen. Before she can act, Nottingham enters and demands to see the letter.
 While Nottingham rages, Sara asserts her innocence. Nottingham is exultant as the sound of a funeral march indicates that Essex is being led to the Tower. To prevent Sara from running to the Queen, he gives orders that she is not to leave the house.
 Sara pleads with her husband, in vain.
Scene 2: The condemned cell in the Tower of London.
 A sombre orchestral introduction sets the scene. Essex – pessimistic one moment, optimistic the next – wishes only to clear Sara’s reputation.
 Essex swears to the absent Nottingham that his wife is chaste.
 The sound of footsteps and of a lock turning signal a reprieve, or so Essex thinks; but the guards have come to escort him to his execution. His breast bathed in tears, stained with his blood, Essex in heaven will beseech God to help his beloved. The guards promise him the cruellest of deaths.
Scene 3: The Palace of Westminster
 Elizabeth is with her ladies. She has sent for Sara to comfort her while, no longer angry, she desperately waits for Essex to send her the ring.
 Through her tears, Elizabeth thinks of Essex living on with her rival, while she herself is abandoned.
 Cecil reports that Essex is on his way to the scaffold. Sara rushes in with the ring. At last, Elizabeth realises that it is Sara whom Essex loves. But it is too late to save him. A cannon shot is heard as Nottingham, ‘with ferocious joy’, announces that Essex is dead. He proclaims his responsibility for preventing Sara from reaching the Queen in time.
 As Nottingham and Sara are led away, Elizabeth has a vision of the headless Essex. She will reign no longer: James is now the King of England.
© Richard Lawrence, 2008
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