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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848)
Roberto Devereux - tragedia lirica in three acts (1837)
Dimitra Theodossiu (soprano) – Elizabeth, Queen of England; Andrew Schroeder (baritone) – The Duke of Nottingham; Federica Bragaglia (mezzo) – Sara, Duchess of Nottingham; Massimiliano Pisapia (tenor) – Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex; Luigi Albani (tenor) – Lord Cecil; Giorgio Valerio (bass) – Sir Walter Raleigh; Tommaso Norelli (baritone) – A Page/A Servant
Orchestra and Chorus of the Bergamo Musica Festival/Marcello Rota
rec. live, Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo, Italy, September 2006
The Italian libretto (by Salvatore Cammarano) may be accessed online
NAXOS 8.660222-23 [54:39 + 72:39]
Experience Classicsonline

Roberto Devereux is a gloomy opera, marked by tragedy from the outset; Donizetti’s life was no less gloomy at the time of its creation. His wife Virginia had died, probably through cholera, caused by a syphilitic infection from her husband. Donizetti never really got over the grief, even though several years later he wrote two of his finest comic masterpieces, La fille du régiment and Don Pasquale. He was a professional to his fingertips and, like Mozart, no ‘diary-composer’, but with hindsight it is easy to draw the conclusion that writing the tragic music for this opera came relatively easily to him.
The subject, loosely based on English Tudor period history, was something he had devoted himself to on several occasions. Elizabeth I had figured in two previous operas, Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth (1829) and Maria Stuarda (1835). Even earlier another queen was memorably portrayed in Anna Bolena (1827). Learning English history from his operas is a hazardous affair, since Cammarano, who was his regular librettist, didn’t pay much attention to historical fact. In this opera Elizabeth abdicates in favour of James VI of Scotland. He certainly became king of England as James I, but not until after Elizabeth’s death.
But we shouldn’t make too much fuss of this. The story, in short, is as follows:
Act I scene 1: Queen Elizabeth is in love with Robert, Earl of Essex, who has been recalled from Ireland to be brought to court for high treason. Elizabeth doubts his fidelity, since she has concluded that he has a relation with Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, and asks him to return the ring she gave him. In scene 2 Essex visits Sara in her home, jealous of her husband, throws the ring he got from Elizabeth and gets a blue scarf from Sara.
Act II: Essex is sentenced to death and his only chance to escape is that the Queen interferes, which is unlikely, since Sara’s scarf was found on him when he was arrested. Also the Duke of Nottingham recognizes the scarf.
Act III: In a letter Essex pleads to Sara to return the ring to the queen to save his life but the Duke sees the letter and prevents her from visiting the queen. When Sara finally rushes into the queen’s chambers it is too late. A cannon shot announces that Essex is already dead.
It may not be the most edifying of plots but not many librettos were in those years and Donizetti, as always, furnished it with some truly inspired music, along with some numbers that are more run-of-the-mill. There is an evocative chorus that opens act II and Essex, waiting in his cell for the execution has a long aria that must rank among the best in any Donizetti opera. Elizabeth’s two arias in the last scene are also well conceived to express the queen’s state of mind. The Duke of Nottingham’s aria and cabaletta in the first act is also a splendid piece of music.
Recorded live during the Bergamo Musica Festival the performance is adorned with stage noises and there is distant applause at the end of acts and after some numbers. This is easy enough to live with and the reproduction of orchestra and singers is in the main excellent though it varies somewhat due to stage movements. Marcello Rota chooses sensible tempos all round and draws committed playing from the orchestra, which is made up of staff and the best students of the Istituto Musicale Bergamasco. The chorus is well drilled under Corrado Casati but there are some sprawling female voices in the second act opening chorus.
The solo singing is on a high level with Greek-born Dimitra Theodossiu an eloquent Elizabeth. She has a beautiful voice, is technically assured and, first and foremost, has a rich palette of nuances. Her aria and cabaletta in act I is splendid and she impresses even more in the following scene with Essex. That she has histrionic powers is made clear in the furious finale to act II but where she reaches Heaven is in the two arias in the last scene of the opera. Her pianissimo singing is indeed angelic – not even Edita Gruberova could do it better. Fully worthy to stand by her side is the tenor, Massimiliano Pisapia, whom I prized in the recent DVD La bohème from Torre del Lago (review). Here is a singer with all the attributes of a star tenor, including taste and unerringly intelligent phrasing. His soft singing is exquisite and his stylish handling of Essex’s aria – even more the light and airy cabaletta – in the prison scene (CD 2 tr. 9-11) could hardly be bettered. The young American baritone Andrew Schroeder is also an impressive Duke of Nottingham. He can express both poetry and anger and makes his mark at his first entrance when he sings the aria Forse in quell cor sensibile (CD 1 tr. 10) with fine shadings, followed by an equally accomplished cabaletta. Later in the opera his dramatic singing is intense – and nuanced. Federica Bragaglia as Sara isn’t quite in this class. She is expressive enough and her technical ability leaves little to be wished but she is rather monochrome and her tone is acidulous and marred by an insistent vibrato. The comprimario roles are well cast.
As for alternative recordings there is Beverly Sills, recorded for ABC in 1969 with Charles Mackerras conducting, now available on Deutsche Grammophon. Ms Sills maintained that the role of Elizabeth took ten years off her career. In 1969 she was still at the height of her powers though but the supporting cast is only middling. Edita Gruberova on Nightingale, recorded in 1996 with Friedrich Haider conducting, has a more substantial voice than Sills and is probably more what Donizetti intended but the ideal Elisabetta should be more of a lirico spinto and Dimitra Theodossiou may be the closest we have come so far in recorded Elisabettas. Gruberova/Haider have the little known Don Bernardini as a stylish Essex but he can’t quite measure up with Pisapia and the other main characters are no better than their counterparts on the Sills recording. Complete opera sets where all the pieces fit together are rare indeed and while admiring both Sills and Gruberova enormously, I think that the cast as a whole on this new Naxos set makes it a better proposition.
Göran Forsling

see also review by Margarida Mota-Bull



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