Roberto Devereux, Holland Park Opera, June 2009Posted on 31 May 2009
This gloriously dramatic opera by Donizetti, composed in 1837 at the time of his wife’s death, provides a powerful vehicle for the soprano as Queen Elizabeth. The story is loosely based on the life of Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex (1565–1601), adapted by the librettist Salvatore Cammarano from the French play Elisabeth d’Angleterre by Francois Ancelot, and freely using much of Felice Romani’s Il Conte d’Essex, written in 1833.
The essentials are as follows. Robert is a favourite of the queen, but has made a mess of commanding England’s troops in Ireland, and is under attack because of his apparent treachery. The queen, fearing for Robert’s life, has given him a ring that he should return to her if need be, and she will save him. But unbeknown to the queen he is in love with Sara, wife to the Duke of Nottingham, and he entrusts the ring to her. She in turn gives him a scarf she has embroidered to express their love. In Act II the queen’s ministers arrest Robert, search his apartments, and discover the scarf. The queen is furious at the declaration of love embroidered on the scarf, and wants to condemn Robert to death despite entreaties from his friend Nottingham. Later Nottingham realises what is going on, but when the queen interrogates him and Robert as to the identity of the mystery lady, both remain silent. The queen signs Robert’s death sentence, and he is sent to the Tower. In Act III Nottingham confronts his wife and orders her seclusion at home. When she eventually manages to take the ring to the queen, followed by Nottingham, it is too late — a canon shot announces Robert’s death. Nottingham has detained his wife long enough to forestall the queen’s intervention, and she now orders their arrest. But haunted by Robert’s ghost and her own coming death she abdicates the throne. Needless to say, this is a deviation from history, though Devereux was executed in 1601, and the queen passed away two years later.
This exciting new production at Holland Park, conducted by Richard Bonynge and directed by Lindsay Posner, boasted elegant designs and glorious Elizabethan costumes by Peter McKintosh, well lit by Peter Mumford. The stage was more extensive than it has been for many Holland Park productions, and with movement directed by Adam Cooper it all came off with great effect. Irish soprano Majella Cullagh looked suitably regal as Queen Elizabeth, with her high head-gear and almost white make-up. She sang the role well, gaining power as the evening progressed. Leonardo Capalbo was an eminently realistic Robert, with Yvonne Howard doing well in the mezzo role of Sara. Baritone Julian Hubbard sang strongly as her husband Nottingham, and Aled Hall was a sinister Lord Cecil, showing excellent stage presence. For opening night on June 2, Joan Sutherland was in the audience and when people began to recognise her shortly before the start of the second half, there was a warming round of applause. Her husband Richard Bonynge conducted with excellent precision and restraint, and this would have been a terrific performance if the singers had not seemed so nervous, perhaps because it was opening night, and possibly because of the famous diva in the audience.