Sunday, October 2, 2016

Donizetti: Roberto Devereux (Metropolitan Opera, N.Y.C., April 16, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I just got through watching a PBS telecast of a Metropolitan Opera performance from last April 16 of Donizetti’s opera Roberto Devereux, which I was somewhat surprised to read had never been performed at the Met before the run of this production started on March 24. It was premiered in 1837, two years after Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (which is set in Scotland) — apparently Italian audiences were really big on British subjects at the time, and Donizetti not only came up with the risible Emilia di Liverpool (Donizetti’s librettist, Giuseppe Checcherini, for some reason thought Liverpool was an inland city surrounded by mountains instead of a seaport), which got revised later and retitled L’Eremitaggio di Liverpool (“The Hermit of Liverpool”), he wrote three operas about British royal women during the Tudor era: Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux, dealing with the May-December romance (or whatever it was — historians are still trying to sort it out) between Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, a.k.a. Robert Devereaux, in 1599. The bare historical facts are that Essex saw a lot of the Queen that year and offered to lead an army into Ireland to put down one of the regular rebellions the Irish fought against their British overlords until they finally won effective independence (well, 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties did, anyway) in 1922. The Essex campaign was widely supported by the British people — William Shakespeare wrote his play Henry V largely as propaganda for it and deliberately intended his original audiences to make the Henry V = Essex parallel — but, unlike Henry V, Essex got his ass handed to him by Irish fighters, who under the command of the Earl of Tyrone fought what would now be called a guerrilla campaign and decimated Essex’ troops. Essex returned home to England and, depending on which historical account you believe, led his troops into London either as a show of strength, an attempt to get them taken care of despite his defeat, or an outright act of rebellion intended to depose Queen Elizabeth and take the throne in her place. Elizabeth finally, albeit reluctantly, signed his death warrant and Essex was hanged. From that Donizetti’s librettist, Salvatore Cammarano (who’d written the libretto for Lucia di Lammermoor and would go on to write the libretto for Verdi’s Il Trovatore), spun a tale which pretty much eliminated the political and judicial aspects of the tale and created a romantic rectangle: Queen Elizabeth (Sondra Radvanovsky) loves, or at least is infatuated with, Essex (Matthew Polenzani); Essex has the hots for Sara, Duchess of Nottingham (Elina Garança), whom he dated some years previously but when he went off on one of his earlier military campaigns Elizabeth, to get rid of the potential competition, ordered her to marry the Duke of Nottingham (Mariusz Kwiecien).

The opera opens with a choral scene in which the courtiers spy Sara reading a book about the legendary medieval heroine Rosamond, and lamenting that she can’t just die once and be done with it but suffers a death-in-life experience every day she lives and Essex isn’t part of her life. Then Elizabeth enters and announces that she’s confronted with a dilemma: her court wants her to sign the death warrant for Essex, but she’s still in love with him and wants to spare his life if he’s still in love with her, but not if, as she suspects, he’s found another girlfriend. Earlier Elizabeth gave Essex a ring as a pledge of her commitment to him and said that if he ever got in trouble, all he had to do is show the ring and she would pardon him no matter what he’d done. She asks Essex point-blank if he’s in love, and he says no. Then Nottingham comes in and he and Essex sing a friendship duet — yes, it’s one of those operas in which the male leads are buddy-buddy until one of them realizes that the other is either sleeping with or at least is after his wife. Meanwhile, Sara is so broken up about her situation she’s taken up needlepoint (as Anna Russell said about another opera, “I’m not making this up, you know!”) and has made an elaborate gold-trimmed blue scarf which serves a similar plot function to the handkerchief in Shakespeare’s (and Verdi’s) Othello. Got all that? The scarf? The ring? These will be on your test and be 25 percent of your grade. Eventually the truth comes out when Essex gives Sara the ring, Sara gives Essex the scarf, Essex gets arrested and can’t present Elizabeth the ring that will save him because he no longer has it, instead the scarf slips out of his clothes when he’s searched, Nottingham instantly jumps to the conclusion that Essex and his wife have been having an affair (though Cammarano, who like a Production Code-era Hollywood screenwriter tried to have it both ways, has Essex insist to Nottingham that he and Sara never actually got it on), Elizabeth orders Essex’ execution but in the middle of a formal court function takes off the big red wig she’d been wearing and reveals the little scraggle of grey that’s all the hair she had left (this is historically accurate, by the way; the Tudors weren’t into bathing and they took such lousy care of their personal hygiene Elizabeth lost all her hair and had to wear wigs whenever she appeared in court or in public, and the two times Bette Davis played Queen Elizabeth — in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, 1939; and The Virgin Queen, 1955 — she had her hair shaved to give herself the longer forehead Elizabeth had acquired when she started going bald), symbolizing her disgust with the whole idea of ruling and her readiness to die.

Ironically, Donizetti’s three “queen” operas were pretty well forgotten until Maria Callas revived Anna Bolena at La Scala in 1957, and a decade later Beverly Sills and conductor Julius Rudel at the now-defunct New York City Opera decided to perform them as a trilogy. The Met did right by Roberto Devereux, hiring a conductor (Maurizio Benini) who actually kept the music going at a good clip, and a fabulous cast headed by Sondra Radvanovsky, whose voice is a bit bigger and thicker than the usual stereotype of a coloratura soprano. Not that I minded; that was one of the attractions of Callas in this repertory (though La Divina never sang this part), and though Radvanovsky’s voice doesn’t have the unmistakable personal quality of Callas’s she’s also a good deal more secure technically — I noticed only one passage where she had a bit of wobble. The other singers were also well up to their roles, especially Kwiecien, who sings with such power and authority (here as well as in other productions, including the heroine’s bad-guy brother in Lucia di Lammermoor) you feel for him for being a baritone and thereby always getting cast either as the villain, the tenor’s best friend or someone’s father. The staging was by Sir David McVicar, and the Met co-created this production with the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris (which may explain why the Met credited the libretto to a French writer as well as Cammarano — I guess the French production was sung in French and the other writer was the translator), though inevitably I found myself comparing this to the 2001 Barcelona video of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana, the only other major opera I can think of based on the Elizabeth-and-Essex story. That production (shown on Spanish TV with Spanish subtitles but blessedly sung in Britten’s and librettist William Plomer’s original English) was done by Phyllida Lloyd, director of the musical Mamma Mia! (Benjamin Britten and ABBA: one degree of separation!), whose production was considerably more stylized than McVicar’s but also a good deal more creative (I especially liked the giant box which Queen Elizabeth inhabited for most of the production, an obvious symbol for the way her role as queen constrained her as a woman and a human being), though there were some nice symbols in McVicar’s set, notably the statue of a skeleton holding a Grim Reaper scythe, an obvious reference to the threat of death that hangs over this story.

This production of Roberto Devereux had just about everything a great opera production needs … except one: a great opera. Through all too much of Devereux, as these great singers and this great conductor plodded their way through a surprisingly uninteresting score, I couldn’t help but think, “Ah, Lucia without the great tunes.” About the only time Donizetti really comes alive as a composer in this one is in the recriminatory duet between Sara and Nottingham that opens the last act (Act III in Donizetti’s and Cammarano’s original design, though the Met, seeking to cut down the number of intermissions so they don’t have to pay their musicians overtime, jammed the first two acts together into one), when the music speeds up and the emotional temperature boils over — this really sounds more like early Verdi than Donizetti — but the rest of the music is pretty slow and droopy, and there isn’t even a mad scene to put the singer to “a test of skill with the first flute” (as George Bernard Shaw once described the Lucia Mad Scene) and add to the level of sheer fun. One can’t listen to Roberto Devereux and not think of all the composers who did situations like this better — and not just later composers, either; it occurred to me that Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito is essentially Roberto Devereux with the genders reversed (Roman Emperor Titus debates whether to kill or save the accused terrorist who’s also his former girlfriend), but even within the insane strictures of opera seria, a genre already considered old-fashioned when Mozart composed Tito in the last year of his life (1791), Mozart brought far more power and genuine emotion to this story than Donizetti did. (Once again, class, there’s the difference between talent and genius.) I haven’t heard Britten’s Gloriana in a while but I remember it as a flawed opera but considerably better than this one, though the Elizabeth-and-Essex opera that should have been composed is one by Erich Wolfgang Korngold that would have drawn on his film score for the 1939 Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex movie — and though Sondra Radvanovsky and Matthew Polenzani are not unattractive people, they are big and bulky enough that in the opening preview shots I couldn’t help but think, “Well, they’re not Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé, but they’re also not Bette Davis and Errol Flynn.”