Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” - 1837
Why isn’t this opera performed more often? Gaetano Donizetti wrote three operas based on the Tudor saga: Maria Stuarda, Anna Bolena, and Roberto Devereux (despite the title, the lead role of this opera is Elizabeth I). None of these operas are performed very often because the soprano roles are extremely demanding. Also, nearly all of Donizetti’s works have been overshadowed by his Lucia di Lammermoor and his Elixir of Love. Roberto Devereux, however, is a tour de force that vocally can be considered a precursor to Wagner and dramatically can be considered a precursor to Verismo.
The main reason why this opera has been almost completely forgotten is because the role of Queen Elizabeth I is nearly impossible to sing. As hard as Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena are, this one is even worse. It requires a much more dramatic voice than is necessary for even Maria Stuarda and calls for a surprisingly minimal amount of coloratura, considering this was written during the high Bel Canto era. The soprano role in this opera can easily be compared to the notoriously detrimental roles in Verdi’s Nabucco and Macbeth.
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565-1601) was one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorites. It is unclear whether or not the two were ever involved romantically. Although she helped to advance his career, he later lost respect for her and fell out of favor after bungling a campaign in Ireland. He was executed at the age of 35 after he attempted a coup known as the Essex Rebellion.
Donizetti’s opera is based on a play by Francois Ancelot called Elisabeth d’Angleterre. Roberto Devereux was first performed on October 28, 1837.
Elisabetta – Dramatic coloratura soprano
Roberto Devereux – Lyric tenor with some coloratura
The Duke of Nottingham – Lyric baritone
Sara – Lyric mezzo-soprano with some coloratura
The opera opens with the courtiers debating whether or not Roberto Devereux will be tried for treason now that he has returned from Ireland. Sara, one of the queen’s ladies, is particularly concerned as Devereux has been her secret lover. She expresses her concern in the aria All’afflitto e dolce pianto (Sweet tears of affliction). Elisabetta enters and confides to Sara that she (the queen) once had an affair with Devereux and is now inclined to be lenient because his love had made her feel young (L’amor suo me the beata – His love was a gift to me)
When the queen and Devereux meet, she suspects she has a rival for his affections. She sees that he is still wearing the ring she had given him, with a promise to forgive if it was ever returned to her, and feels she has a right to know who his new lover is. They start quarrelling when he refuses to answer (Un lampo, un lampo orrribile – I see a terrible light). The Duke of Nottingham, Sara’s husband, sees their fight and offers to support Devereux. The latter gladly accepts but becomes worried when the duke talks about how he has seen Sara crying over a blue scarf and suspects she is unhappy in their marriage.
The scene changes and Sara is shown sewing her blue scarf. Devereux enters and she explains that she would never have married the duke had it not been for the queen’s command. After Devereux is given the scarf as a parting gift, the two vow never to meet again.
The queen, still seething with jealously, has her men search Devereux’s apartment. They find the blue scarf which Elisabetta feels is proof of his betrayal, although she does not know Sara is the guilty party. The duke enters and begs her not to sign the death warrant parliament has passed. The queen orders him to remain when she confronts Devereux.
All emotions come to a head when the queen produces Sara’s gift. The duke realizes his wife is unfaithful and Devereux resigns himself to death as the great trio Alma infida, ingrate core ti raggiunse il mio furore! (Unfaithful soul, ungrateful heart, beware my fury!) is sung.
Elisabetta once more offers to save Devereux’s life if he will pronounce the name of his paramour. When he refuses, the queen signs his death warrant (Va! La morte sul capo it pende – Go! Death hangs over your head).
Devereux sends his ring to Sara and begs her to take it to the queen. She is stopped, however, by her husband who declares he knows all and will not allow her to save the man he has now come to hate.
During a brief scene, an imprisoned Devereux runs through his emotions and decides that, although he will suffer greatly, he would rather die than betray Sara.
Elisabetta is still hoping Devereux will show repentance by sending her the ring and realizes she would rather he lived, even if he no longer loves her (Vivi ingrato – Live, ungrateful one). Sara and the duke enter with the ring and Elisabetta begs her men to stop the execution. At that moment, however, a cannon shot announces Devereux’s death. The duke proudly declares he is responsible for Devereux’s demise –Sangue volli e sangue ottenni (I wanted blood and blood I have obtained) – and Elisabetta goes insane. As she sings the aria Quel sangue versato (The blood you have spilled) she imagines she sees Devereux’s headless ghost and her throne turning into a tomb. The opera ends by blowing history completely out of the water with Elisabetta abdicating in favor of James of Scotland.
A large part of Beverly Sills’ autobiography Bubbles deals with her performances of Roberto Devereux. She considered it one of the main roles of her career, but also admitted that Elisabetta undoubtedly damaged her voice.
Many coloratura sopranos make it a goal to sing as many operas in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy as is possible. Very few however manage to sing all three: Leyla Gencer, Edita Gruberova, and Beverly Sills were some. Dame Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas, on the other hand, both sang Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena, but neither even attempted Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux.
Sometimes this opera is updated to modern times, making the audience members wonder if they are dealing with Elizabeth II rather than Elizabeth I.
Occasionally, the soprano playing Elisabetta will remove her red wig and reveal a historically correct bald head while singing the final verse of Quel Sangue Versato. This action was made famous by Edita Gruberova and, although it is great for dramatic purposes, can cause quite a shock to unsuspecting viewers.
© 2013 LastRoseofSummer2