by Eugene Toth
For the New York Metropolitan Opera’s March 24, 2016 gala opening of “Roberto Devereux,” the eyes of opera enthusiasts sparkled. Not only was the performance a new production. For the first time ever, on the 413th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth I’s death, the Met staged Gaetano Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux”
Donizetti set several operas in Britain. After Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda Roberto Devereux was Donizetti’s third opera about British Queens. “Roberto Devereux,” depicts the golden age of Elizabeth’s reign and the Tudor era, when poetry, music and theater flowered.
In 1599, Roberto Devereux, a former lover of Elizabeth I, returned from an unsuccessful war in Ireland, to England. The opera tells why Elizabeth I executed him for treason.
With historical detail, exquisite costumes invoked the splendor of the Elizabethan era. In
his first appearance, Devereux wore a black overcoat with silver lining over black plate armor, based upon a 1590 Portrait by William Segar of Roberto Devereux, Earl of Essex.
In the Metropolitan Opera’s new production, the stage wore no curtains. Between two balconies, a wall approached and receded from the audience. In different scenes the wall represented a palace of Elizabeth I, the Palace of the Duke of Nottingham, and the Tower of London. At the sides, in two galleries, chorus members acted as an audience and witnesses focusing attention upon the four soloists – soprano Elizabeth, the mezzo soprano Sara, the tenor Robert Devereux, and baritone Duke of Nottingham.
Elizabeth I’s passion for her lover Robert, Earl of Essex, drives the plot. In scene 1, Elizabeth displayed the character of an imperious, fearsome, and proud monarch. She held more power than anyone else in England. Parliament sought to execute Essex as a rebel for treason. The elderly Queen loved a younger man. The Queen confided to Sara, a beautiful lady in waiting, that the Queen would pardon Devereux of the treason charges, if he still loved the Queen.
Devereux loved Sara. Elizabeth had forced Sara to marry Devereux’s best friend and supporter, the Duke of Nottingham. Trapped in a marriage she never wanted, Sara still loved Devereux. At their secret meeting, a duet between Sara and Devereux supplies one of the opera’s high points. Delightful flute mirrored the intense love they shared. Telling him to flee, that they must never meet again, Sara gave Devereux, as a token of her love, her blue shawl.
By order of the Queen, Sir Walter Raleigh arrested Devereux. Raleigh discovered Sara’s blue scarf. The scarf proved Devereux loved a woman. Blind with rage and jealousy, Elizabeth signed Devereux’s death warrant.
Recognizing his wife’s scarf, the Duke of Nottingham, drunk in his palace, assaulted Sara with a knife and threw her about. Devereux’s unwise passion for Sara turned against him his best supporters – the Queen and his former friend the Duke of Nottingham.
Still in love with Devereux, too late, the Queen canceled his execution. Moments before the executioner chopped off Devereux’s head, she pardoned Devereux. A cannon shot signaled his death. The Queen saw visions of Devereux’s headless ghost and a bloody crown.
Elizabeth could not order Devereux to love her. Even the greatest power meets limits. In the background of the stage statues symbolized Time and Death. Renouncing her throne, she exclaimed “Let James be King!” A blast of the orchestra’s brass marked her death.
Setting a fast and thrilling pace, the Queen’s transforming feelings supply the opera’s dramatic tension. Her love transformed into fury, regret, sorrow, remorse, despair, and finally madness. Donizetti called this work, “the opera of emotions.”
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