When Donizetti’s opera “Roberto Devereux” begins, the man of the title finds himself trapped in a brocade of lies.
Roberto (tenor Matthew Polenzani), the young, swaggering Earl of Essex, has been a favorite of Queen Elizabeth for some time. He’s a smooth-talking braggart who has wiggled his way out of other tight spots but never fallen out of favor. Now, his failure to squelch an Irish rebellion, lying about it, and a secret love affair may undermine his court privileges for good.
Based on actual events between 1599 and 1601, the year of Devereux’s execution, Donizetti’s 1837 opera demonstrates the composer’s fascination for Tudor history. “Roberto Devereux” became part of what’s now called Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy. Earlier works centered on Ann Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, and the rivalry between Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart. The Devereux story takes place at the end of Elizabeth I’s reign. She’s exhausted, angry, confused and ready to throw in the royal handkerchief.
It seems Lyin’ Bob, as we might refer to the Earl during campaign 2016, has run out of excuses and charm. In history, his demise spread out over two years, but Donizetti, who wrote his own libretto, compressed the time frame into a few days. The composer has also taken other liberties by attributing Devereux’s downfall mostly to a secret love affair. The Earl of Essex was executed in 1601 for treason, but this is opera after all. And it’s Italian opera.
The Metropolitan Opera has never staged “Roberto Devereux” before, and the company has gone all out. First, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky has headlined in each of the three operas. Last fall, she sang the title role in “Anna Bolena,” “Maria Stuarda” a few months later, and for eight performances only this spring, she portrays the haggard and betrayed Elizabeth I (Elisabetta in “Roberto Devereux.”). Radvanovsky follows such operatic luminaries as Maria Callas, Beverly Sills, Renata Scotto and Montserrat Caballé in this bel canto (beautiful singing) role that stands on an operatic platform of its own.
“Roberto Devereux” follows a fairly simple structure that Donizetti used in other works, most notably “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Act I sets the musical language and lays out the issues and key characters. The action takes place at the Tudor court and swirls around a central quartet: the Queen (Radvanovsky); the troublesome young Devereux (tenor Polenzani); his best friend, the Duke of Nottingham (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) and Sara (mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca), the beautiful Duchess of Nottingham. She happens to be Lyin’ Bob’s secret squeeze. Running away from the Ireland campaign and indulging in court intrigue with the duchess, Roberto manages to betray his country, his best friend and his boss.
Act II has a single dramatic arc as Roberto’s lies unravel and the queen finally signs his death warrant. Act III has three short scenes where the Nottingham marriage unravels further, Roberto goes to prison to await execution and the queen learns too late that she might have saved her young, cheating darling. The finale is a tour de force for Radvanovsky, and we’ll see how far Director David McVicar goes with Donizetti’s imagined, truth-bending conclusion.
Everything takes place in Westminster Palace as if it were a play-within-a-play. One scene, for example, suggests the Tower of London.
Traditionalists will love director-designer McVicar’s production. He conjures a lavish 16th-century Tudor interior replete with oak paneling, heavy draperies, chandeliers and costumed courtiers who hover in doorways and alcoves.
Sung in Italian, the opera will have English subtitles. It runs three and a half hours. See you at Westminster Palace by way of Fort Lewis College – this Saturday morning.
email@example.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, art historian and arts journalist.