The works of Donizetti are loved by some for the opportunities they provide for great singers to display their wares. In the bel canto world he dominated for a while, his arias for doomed heroines and forsaken lovers were supreme crowd-pleasers. This Welsh National Opera production of Roberto Devereux, first produced for Naples in 1837, is well served by three singers of the highest class in the main roles – and by a strong production with some striking visual images at key moments. Its story is based on a version of Tudor history that has little basis in the known facts – Essex was in fact executed after leading an abortive coup – but the relationship of Elizabeth and Essex clearly fascinated the Italian public.
The Earl of Essex, Roberto Devereux, has returned from a spectacularly unsuccessful military campaign in Ireland. In his absence the courtiers who hate him have gained the upper hand and he is accused of treason. Queen Elizabeth wishes to defend her favourite but is tormented by the thought that he is unfaithful to her. He does indeed harbour a passion for Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, but believes that she has rejected him. They eventually discover that their love for each other is still strong but Sara is determined to resist her passion and remain faithful to her husband, who is a strong supporter of the embattled Earl. However, she unwisely gives Essex a love token and tragedy ensues.
In the original production in Naples the two singers portraying Elizabeth and Sara took the drama so personally that they came to blows. No sign of such rivalry in Bristol and both were on top form. Justina Gringyte sang the complex opening aria of the first scene with total assurance and reached the heights in her duet with Essex at the end of Act 1 as she is forced to give voice to the love she has tried to deny. Indeed such was the power of her performance that I began to wonder if it would unbalance the plot. But the superb Joyce El-Khoury came into her own in the second act especially in the final scenes where she first gives vent to her fury on discovering Essex’s betrayal and then her despair when she realises that the death sentence has been carried out. The image of El-Khoury as the vengeful queen, her wig removed and astride a sinister spider machine, lives in the memory. Tenor Barry Banks is the charming but self-deluding courtier who has flattered the elderly queen into a liaison but has lost his heart to the younger duchess. His is the sort of tenor voice that can soar to the heroic heights but can equally give the romantic moments that quality of rich texture – almost the swallowed sob at times – that makes him an ideal Donizetti hero. And in the fourth key role – that of the betrayed Duke of Nottingham – bass-baritone Rhys Jenkins sang with style and showed a flexibility of tone that served the role well.
Alessandro Talevi’s version of the opera strips away much of the background detail of the Elizabethan court-in-crisis as the childless queen reaches her final years and concentrates on the geometry of the love triangle – nothing to criticise there. He and designer Madeleine Boyd went for a punk-Tudor look – nearly all the costumes black with a fair share of black leather accessories. Elizabeth’s costumes provided the contrast, with royal scarlet in profusion. Sara had splashes of blue to mark her out from the other women of the court. The spider motif that is introduced in the first scene comes to a climax near the end of Act 2 as Elizabeth climbs what first looks like the scaffold for the execution and then turns into a strange machine with eight legs on which Elizabeth rides as she exercises the power of life and death. Elizabeth as the venomous spider at the centre of her web is not an entirely original idea but it does focus the drama of the final scene very well.
Conductor James Southall guides the WNO orchestra through the contrasts, musical and rhythmic, of Donizetti’s score with aplomb and the WNO chorus is as ever superb. Five star singing for a three star opera but a fine touring production.
- Composed by Gaetano Donizetti
- Directed by Alessandro Talevi
- Libretto by Salvatore Cammarano
- Conducted by James Southall
- Cast includes: Justina Gringyte, Joyce El-Khoury, Barry Banks, Rhys Jenkins
- Welsh National Opera
- Until 10 May 2019 at various venues