Cher Public

Roberto Devereux: Tragedy Mirrored

Devereux Leyla GencerBy the time Roberto Devereux saw its premiere at Napoli’s Teatro San Carlo on 29 October, 1837, Gaetano Donizetti had lost, in an 18-month time frame, both his parents, two still-born children, and his beloved wife Virginia. (Ten years later, the unfortunate composer, after a gradual descent into madness, met a grisly end, from complications of syphilis.) The opera was completed a month after his wife’s death. We can scarcely imagine how the composer, in his grief, summoned up the means to create an opera—and one that so often teems with his richest levels of inspiration. 

Nevertheless, Donizetti, who was known for his professional work ethic as well as being a kind and gentle man, found his recourse for survival through his music; in the process, he created in Roberto Devereux one of opera’s most vividly drawn, memorable characters—Queen Elizabeth I. It was not the first time the composer had dramatized the English monarch; in 1829 she was the subject of his early opera Il castello di Kenilworth, and in 1835 Elizabeth figured prominently—albeit characterized rather one dimensionally—in his Maria Stuarda.

Roberto Devereux was an immediate, highly-lauded success, and was performed over the next several decades worldwide. After the early 1880s, though, it was not given again until 1964, in Naples.

Devereux was adapted from a French play by Jacques Ancelot and converted into a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, the librettist of Lucia di Lammermoor. In this treatment, Cammarano takes great liberties with history in order to construct a story that is, frankly, melodramatic, being imbued with traditional themes of fate.  With its emphases on mistimed incidents and misplaced items (a scarf and a ring provide the catalyst for Roberto’s execution), its plot contrivances were typical in Romantic Italian opera of the day.

In spite of these dramatic clichés, Cammarano laid out a compelling drama where the emotions of the characters are vividly portrayed. In particular, Elizabeth herself is fleshed out into a fully human, complex personage who is torn between her duties as a queen, and her feelings as a woman in love.

Fortunately, the title character Roberto and the secondary leads, the Duke and Duchess (called Sara here) of Nottingham, are depicted by text and music of considerable merit, and which provides Elizabeth with much to feed off of, and to react against. Although Roberto, Sara and Nottingham have solos which do not reach the exalted level of Elizabeth’s, they are nonetheless finely hewn numbers which typify Donizettian lyricism.

Sara’s opening number, “All’aflitto, è dolce il pianto,” is a plaintive, melancholic cantabile melody which must have affected the young Verdi: he later adapted the tune in his defining choral piece “Va, pensiero,” from Nabucco. Nottingham’s “Forse in quel cor sensibile” is an introspective larghetto tune that is one of the celebrated arias of the baritone repertoire. Roberto’s “Come uno spirto angelico” is a suave cantabile aria of supreme grace and beauty, which gives the tenor an opportunity to shine.

The cabaletta that follows, “Bagnato il sen di lagrime,” which is marked as a rather chipper allegretto, is condemned by fastidious musicologists as being inappropriately sprightly and vulgar for the dramatic situation at hand. This view is perhaps based on scholarly snobbery and ignorance: Donizetti was a man of the theater, and good theater allows performers to entertain at multiple levels.

However, it is in the duets and ensembles that find these characters with their most powerful outlets of emotions and complexities of situations; in some crucial ways, these confrontations provide more illumination of musical conception and psychological depth than the isolated solos. In their duet in the first act, Roberto is recalcitrant and unyielding as Elizabeth tries to inveigle from him feelings which he no longer has toward her. The quick accompanying orchestral interlude signifying Roberto’s entrance reveals the queen’s agitated pulse in anticipation of his arrival.

At first brusque and demanding with Roberto, she melts in nostalgic recall as she intones, in a most caressing phrase, “Oh rimembranza,” which segues into a passage of the utmost loveliness, “Un tenero core,” that shows Elizabeth revealing her most tender, vulnerable feelings. Moments later, confused and goaded by his lack of response to her, she tries to intimidate Roberto into revealing that he is in love.

When he denies this—“Io? No,” the brief, crashing chord following this is like a verbal slap in the face to Elizabeth; the queen then responds, to a superb vivace passage , “Un lampo, un lampo orribile,” which shows the queen in her monumental, injured rage (the tune itself was again by borrowed by Verdi— in the trio that ends Act 1 of Il trovatore).

Later, Roberto, while no less troubled, is a different man altogether for his encounter with Sara, an uncommonly fine duet; here he shows the passions of a man in love that was missing in his scene with Elizabeth. Verdi once again found borrowing from Donizetti a felicitous notion in this duet. In the duet for tenor and soprano in Un ballo in maschera, the section “Non sai tu” uncannily recalls Sara and Roberto’s “Dacchè tornasti.”

Nottingham’s music, largely conventional in the typical betrayed-baritone vein, becomes vivid in the duet with his wife Sara in Act 3; “Più tremenda avvampa e rugge,” to Sara’s feverish protestations, has a towering sweep of vengeance that easily might parallel Rigoletto’s “Sì, vendetta.”

It is on Elizabeth, though, that Donizetti lavishes his most intense imagination and infinite care of conception. The role is one of the most difficult in the soprano repertoire, calling for a singing actress of the most superior technical and dramatic skills possible. In some ways Elizabeth is on the same exalted parallel with Bellini’s Norma in its exacting requirements and need for a virtuoso soprano of the highest order. Elizabeth’s music, of Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy, is quite possibly the most difficult, replete with raging scale work passages, octave leaps, and much in the way of forceful, scalding declamation.

Her sovereign stature is immediately characterized at her entrance her entrance by flamboyant, yet decisive, brass-laden flourishes that establish her royal mien. Already by the end of the opening recitative we get a signature instance of how Elizabeth expresses her imperious rage: the phrase “la mia vendetta” vaults an octave’s scale. Moments later, though, we get our first glimpse into Elizabeth’s heart: “L’amor suo mi fe’ beata” is a deeply felt, larghetto piece of considerable beauty. It has a wistful poignancy that make us feel the queen’s pensive state.

The cabaletta that follows (“Ah! ritorna qual ti spero”) to our ears may sound inappropriately jaunty and undignified for a queen. Yet it reveals Elizabeth’s inner excitement and her private, heart-catching joy at the prospect of seeing Roberto again.

Act 2 is one of Donizetti’s most inspired, one that crackles with white-heat drama and tension, with Elizabeth’s fury and frustration reaching, seemingly, ever-higher heights of skillful means and imagination. Her responses to Nottingham (“Taci: pietade o grazia” and “Il tradimento orribile”) are characterized by treacherously difficult passages, with wide interval leaps that are beyond the skill of any but the most accomplished technician.

Upon Roberto’s entrance; Elizabeth scornfully taunts him with the bitterest of words (“Ecco l’indegno!”), then she goes for the plunging, knife-like assault *“Un perfido!”) and the following phrases brilliantly captured by repeated attacks on downward scalar passages. In nearly all instances here, Donizetti uses florid figurations to depict emotions, not as technical razzle-dazzle for purposes of display.

In the magisterial trio that follows for Elizabeth, Roberto and Nottingham (“Alma infida”), the queen seethes with formidable outrage. The signing of the death warrant (“Tutte udite”), with its sinister, accompanying maestro assai, is grave, tense, with the queen intractably determined; however, moments later, she loses her composure and explodes with malevolent, unbridled fury in the wide-ranging (across nearly two octaves) “Va, la morte,” ending the act with magnificently febrile excitement.

It is in the opera’s finale, though, where Donizetti fairly outdoes himself in inspiration, as he was perhaps never again to match. Here is where he seems to have transferred all of his life’s grief and pain through Elizabeth’s own. It is an electrifying, shockingly raw-emotioned scene which has few equals in its realm.

After a terse recitative in which Elizabeth declares her herself as “just a woman,” she launches into “Vivi ingrato,” an expansive, long-lined aria which manages to be both a gorgeous melody and a keen expression of torment, depicting most persuasively a profound weariness of soul. The word ‘m’abbandona’ is effectively varied throughout, each to different writing; the emotional climax comes when the word is intoned over a wide, gradual “sinking” sequence of notes, from top B down to nearly the octave below; its weary plunge indicates Elizabeth’s abject sense of futility.

After the fatal cannon shot is fired, we hear how Donizetti imparts the chorus’s fear, with an underlying, disquieting tension in anticipation of Elizabeth’s reaction; she splutters helplessly and vents her bitterness toward Sara and Nottingham.

As if what had proceeded were not enough, Donizetti caps the opera with a scene that has no precedent: “Quel sangue versato,” one of the most arresting set pieces in all opera. Marked by a grave maestoso in D major, it is a halting, pain-wracked soliloquy that features intervals of sevenths and tenths in the writing suggesting a kind of lunacy of despair.

It is here, perhaps, where Donizetti’s skills are forward-reaching: this piece has all the intensity, fatality and harshness of musico-psychological expression that was a feature, decades later, of Italian verismo. Much has been made of Elizabeth’s historically inaccurate closing words, in which she abdicates to James. Donizetti and Cammarano were not after historical accuracy: they were intent on producing a piece of effective theater conveying the gamut of personal human dramas.

In Roberto Devereux, they certainly succeeded: arguably, the Italianized, musically conceived queen is one of the most magnificently realized creations in all opera.

Fortunately, we now have our choice of numerous documents, both commercial and live, that offer valid realizations of the work.

Leyla Gencer (pictured) who sang the 20th century’s first performance of the opera (Napoli, 1964) is an arrestingly intense Elisabetta, complete with her trademark glottal attacks, brazen use of the lower register, and not always disciplined coloratura:

Montserrat Caballé introduced the opera to the U.S. in the 20th century for the first time (Carnegie Hall, 1965), and the pirates feature her best, young-prime work. Caballé could be said to have the ideal voice for the role. Despite this, she had to simplify and rearrange many of the more demanding passages. Here she is from Aix, 1977, with the young José Carreras:

In 1970, Beverly Sills introduced Roberto Devereux for the first time in a staged production in the U.S. at the New York City Opera. I prefer her 1969 studio recording to the live document. While infinitely more intense and vivid, the “pirate” exposes Sills’ wiry upper register in declamatory passages. The studio affair has her in more congenial voice, and demonstrates her unerring florid singing, and accurate traversal of the score. However, the live performance at 2:05:28 boasts the most astonishing “double attack” high Ds ever:

Edita Gruberova sang Elisabetta in her first staged performance in Barcelona in 1990. In what is arguably her finest performance in the role, she has considerable upper range power, and the score is sung with assured accuracy.

Outstanding too is the blisteringly intense Elisabetta of Alexandrina Pendatchanska (now Alex Penda) in the 1998 Napoli performance. Reservations will center on Penda’s driven, heavy vibrato, and occasional rough passagework.

Mariella Devia, essaying the role for the first time in her 60s, reveals her incredible vocal longevity, as well as a newfound dramatic awareness, so different from her familiar “placid” quality.

Mariana Nicolesco, in a performance from Monte Carlo in 1992, offers much awareness and serviceable involvement, but her insecure technique and bleaty tone is a liability.

Raina Kabaivanska, at age 59 in 1993, displays her rather tough, hyper-dramatic Elisabetta. The size of her voice is marvelously effective, as is her intensity; however, bravura passages are severely compromised.

In a performance of the final scene from 2015, Anna Pirozzi may quite possibly be the closest thing to the Elisabetta Donizetti envisioned. Her singing is poised and powerful, and her declamation of the text crackles with authority.

  • -Ed.

    Niel, such a helpful and heart-felt post, thank you. More like this, please!

    Several years ago I drove to Dallas to see RD, my first exposure to the work, but I hadn’t done my homework beforehand and therefore came away underwhelmed. Now I am very much looking forward to hearing it again.

    Truth be told, I only drove to Dallas because Stephen Costello was in it… we were deeply in love with each other, u know ;-) Today my two strongest memories of that evening are that I had trouble staying awake, and Stephen’s pants weren’t tight enough.

    You mentioned Leyla Gencer! Funny cuz just yesterday I was poking around the archives of the Unnatural Acts of Opera tag and came across this gem of a (long) post about her:

    • aulus agerius

      I took the train up from Austin to see one of those RD performances at Fair Park Music Hall barn, also mainly because of Costello. An altogether disappointing experience and Hasmik Papian was not the worst of it -- I think I remember she was a sub for someone else. Don’t you remember those idiotic glass display cases containing Henry, Anne and young Liz that came back at the end and whirled around the stage between the audience and the singer as Eliza tries to sing that final aria? Infuriating!

    • Camille

      Thanks for the antique link--interesting--always trying to reserve some time to listen to La Gencer and have never succeeded in doing so. Perhaps with this opera (RD), I will finally make the effort as, truth to tell, I have listened to two full productions since last night and I am not loving it, but that is how it goes for me with Donizetti. That he was under such duress and in a terrible personal situation probably would explain a lot of what seems formulaic, to me, at initial hearings.

      Oh well, the tickets are already bought and perhaps the singing will be exceptional in at least a couple cases….

      • Camille

        And I remember now, the Poliuto which I just heard last week was a lot more interesting to me in many respects. It’s just hit and miss for me with Donizetti, for some reason I can’t quite figure through as yet.

        A score I’d really like to hear and am highly unlikely to is the Dom Sebastien, but that’s just not happening in this universe, any time soon, so….

      • Camille: The Gencer was my first recording of the opera. Hers is still my favourite, especially the final scene.

        • Camille

          Yes, thank you. Funny, but I am arriving at pretty much the same conclusion….that hers is the best…and am saving it for last. EXCEPTING that finale of Gruberova’s in 1990 at the Liceu, the like of which can hardly be imagined. Perhaps I shall trouble myself enough to go to the library and check out the score to try and overcome my resistance.

          Oh, something floats up out of the memory bog suddenly…perhaps it was my allergy to Sills back in the day, which has soured RD for me. I remember seeing her on those PBS specials and really not liking it at all. Okay, now I am getting somewhere with this case.

          Perhaps this is as good as any place to start with my tardy Gencer survey…after all, she started it all. Funny, how quickly it caught wildfire and it has been with us, more or less, ever since.

  • -Ed.

    Vaguely. Not really. By the end I was so disinterested and uninvested, truly. I do recall making a post about the evening here on Parterre, saying something to the effect that RD is a dud of an opera and I got yelled at. For sure it was a dud of an evening. I lived in Austin at the time, perhaps we were there together! I remember the barn of a hall, wasn’t it on a college campus or some such? I also remember milling about the lobby before the performance and no one would talk to me, which is so unlike the Texans I know. Dallas has a new opera house now but I haven’t been.

  • Dolciamente Pipo

    I feel the same way about Donizetti. I think it often comes down to lack of melodic or harmonic inspiration and over-reliance on stock situations and uninteresting characters. And I’m a push over for Bellini and Rossini.
    I adore the two famous comedies, but most of Maria Stuarda and a lot of Bolena bore me senseless. Just strikes me as very generic music making.
    Interestingly, of the three, I’ve always found Devereux easily the most engaging.

    You can her Dom Sebastian on an Opera Rara recording. If it’s not still in print, I’m sure there are used copies floating around. It has some interesting things in it. It may depend on how you feel about Kasarova, and the lovely and adorable Filianoti is already experiencing problems. It’s worth checking out.

    What you really, really MUST hear is Les Martyrs. An Opera Rara recording came out last year featuring Michael Spyres. One astonishing surprise after another. I’m not as familiar with the Poliuto version, but this grand opera treatment is really fabulous.

    • Camille

      Oh, yes! That recording is one I’ll have to get as it is, actually, the Les Martyrs that I have been interested in, just having the strangely good fortune to happen on the Poliuto, as it were. With Michael Spyres, one can not help but be in for a great ride!

      Hoping that tonight’s performance will change my perspective.

    • semira mide

      Speaking of Opera Rara, one of its most avid supporters (financial and artistic) Sir Peter Moores just passed away. Through his foundation he supported many wonderful things,and Rossini fans will miss him both for his Opera Rara work, but also his support of the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro. He closed his foundation a couple of years ago, but his contributions continue to bear fruit. RIP.

  • thenoctambulist

    A great piece of writing. Roberto Devereux can be challenging because its beauties are not apparent at first hearing. The title role’s energetic trios and finales overwhelm the rest of the opera.

    Roberto Devereux is the culmination of Donizetti’s most glorious phase of inspiration. After this opera, he left for Paris and things were never the same again. He wrote some good stuff latter on but things had changed. Never was he to attempt an opera for a sfogato heroine at its center: Bolena, Stuarda, Gemma, Borgia and Devereux were never to happen again. These are by far the most challenging and the most beautiful roles ever written for a female voice. They all deal with the fall of a powerful woman. Never was Donizetti nor for that matter Italian opera to conjure up such heroines with such great political power. Their mad scenes are not wacko bird warblings but the breaking of consciousness under unendurable agony and the brave attempt of the character to hold onto whatever lucidity they can. in that sense, they are worthy of Hamlet.

    The problem with Donizetti music is that not many conductors can conduct it nor many singers can sing it. Particularly not the sfogato music. It needs a conductor like Pido to bring out the delicate beauty and power of a work like Bolena out into the open. Listen to his recent staging of the work with Netrebko Even Netrebko sounds better than ever. As for singers, Caballe did well but Devereux needs an early Callas of Armida and Firenze Medea to sing these second and third act finales and it needs a soprano of the caliber of Giannina Russ to do the self-reflective cantabiles justice. Oh Ronzi, why aren’t you born again? there anything in Verdi that didn’t originate from Donizetti?

  • Camille

    Yes, I can see your point, noctambulist. Best to get a score and follow along to understand things better and to leave my bad experiences of the opera with BS behind me.

    No, it may not have been the same type of singer he was writing for as it was for a very different theatrical system, and constrained the demands of the French lyric stage at that time, which had its strictures. However, he DID manage to come up with my beloved Don Pasquale, which seemed to have had the benefit of a lifetime of experience all rolled up within its pages. I love it so much! It is always a delight.

    Verdi also glanced over his shoulder at Rossini and Bellini, as well he may have, but I do not blame him at all. Whenever I hear the finale ultimo cabaletta of Alaide in La Straniera, or the invocation of Zaccaria in Nabucco, it is always Bellini and Verdi, respectively, whom I am reminded of.

    In Bocca al Lupo to all the singers tonight! I am hoping it will be a triumph.

    • Camille

      Sorry, I meant to say that Alcide’s cabaletta pointed forward to Verdi, that’s all. Got lost in my reverie.