Cath Barton attended the Wales Millennium Centre to witness the final part of Welsh National Opera’s 2019 Spring Season, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux.
A warning to the unwary: do not be deceived by the overture to Roberto Devereux. The nod to the English National Anthem is pretty, its rhythms dotted as if for a dance, and the running passages which follow appear to announce an entertainment, but if there is to be a circus on this stage it is one that contains dark as well as light, and there will be blood spilled.
The final part of the trilogy making up WNO’s 2019 Spring Season (Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera being the others) addressing issues of the monarchy and its uses and abuses of power; this is an opera which compels and stirs through its music, a bridge between the heights of early nineteenth century bel canto when beauty of line is all and the heavier dramas of Verdi which will shortly follow. Here Donizetti takes the operatic conventions of the time and makes of them believable situations and characters. So, when Elisabetta, the Queen of England, makes her entrance for her aria di sortita after the twenty minutes which would have given nineteenth century audiences time to turn from their supper, there has already been drama presented on stage in the person of Sara, Duchess of Nottingham and lover of the man whom the Queen loves, the eponymous Roberto, Earl of Essex. For in this opera there is not just one prima donna, but two.
The scenario is not complicated, and yet permits much scope for twists and nuance. The Queen’s lover is accused of treason. The Queen discovers that he loves another woman. Will she save him? How will she reconcile her emotions and her royal duty? The real Robert, Earl of Essex was a favourite of the real Queen Elizabeth I of England and he was executed for treason. However, this is not a retelling of history, but an elaborated fiction in which the librettist Salvatore Cammarano drew on the play Elisabeth d’Angleterre by François Ancelot and to which Donizetti married musical expression. The introduction of a romantic rival, Sara, becomes the crux for the drama.
The first Act, in this revival of a 2013 production for WNO directed by Alessandro Talevi, is compelling, as the scenario is set out and suspense built, culminating in a thrilling duet between Sara and Roberto Devereux. Donizetti’s orchestral writing is superb, sparkling as it drives the action forward but elsewhere held back to the barest of underlay necessary for the four principals to have individual scope to play out their conflicts. Conductor Carlo Rizzi is masterful in his judgement of tempi and volume, always giving the singers the balance of support and freedom which they need to weave their vocal lines. Between them, singers and orchestral players enable this music to bloom.
The tension in the opera is more attenuated after the interval, but builds again to the climax of the final scene in which Elisabetta, regretting her decision to send Roberto Devereux to his death, renounces her throne. Lebanese-Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury, in the role of Elisabetta, gives a thrilling performance, showing herself visibly emotional at the curtain call. I can see her taking on the mantle of Beverly Sills and performing all three of Donizetti’s Tudor queens. Her mastery of the coloratura, her expression in the messa di voce and her sheer intelligence as a singer all shone out from her first imperious entry to the unbridled passion of her final aria.
Lithuanian mezzo Justina Gringyté, in the role of Sara, has a quality in her voice which has been compared to granite – it certainly contains rock-hard security but there is a rich smoothness in there too, and she has a spiky physicality on stage. Bel canto specialist Barry Banks is utterly at home in the role of Devereux and Biagio Pizzuti, making his WNO debut as Duke of Nottingham, has a rich baritone voice and suitably cold presence.
Robyn Lyn Evans, Wyn Pencarreg, Philip Smith (also in a WNO debut) and George Newton-Fitzgerald take supporting roles in the court, as do the full WNO chorus. Maxine Braham as movement director has the men of the chorus move in well-orchestrated concert, and the singing of both the male and female choruses is always strong.
I have mixed feelings about the design of this production. The idea is sound – the motif of the spider, which consumes. But the development of the idea is, for me, a little clunky. In the opening scene the women of the chorus cluster round a light-box, in which we see the shadow of a spider. The image is clear and enduring. Everything is black or blue, apart from a red box carried by Sara. It draws the eye. Inside there are insects, fed then to the spider. When the men of the chorus are on stage after that, talking amongst themselves in twos and threes, is it my imagination or are they scratching at their heads? Are the bugs amongst them too? It matters not if I am being fanciful, for the atmosphere of the court is febrile, suspicions are rife. It is the way of things.
But when Sara and Roberto Devereux are duetting, lamenting the impossibility of their love, there are two butterflies caught in the box, or are they moths, drawn to the light, doomed to die? Again it matters not which, except that for me they distract a little from the singing.
In Act 2 the Queen is the spider. The idea and the picture are wonderful, as is the notion that Roberto Devereux is caught in her web, arms and legs held by its strands. But as he struggles against the lines that hold him I’m worrying about how he will get out. Though would I rather he simply stood there? I’m not sure. Here is the constant challenge of design for performance – to support and enhance but not to distract from the drama being enacted. That said, all praise to Matthew Haskins’s lighting design, which incorporates shadow play most skilfully. Sometimes shadows of suspicion and intrigue are more potent than that which is seen in full light.
In the end all eyes could only be on the tragic figure of the ageing Queen, spider or no spider. This was an absolute tour de force from Joyce El-Khoury. Bravo to her, and to the whole cast and creative team.
Cath Barton’s debut novella, The Plankton Collector, is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint.