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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1868)
Roberto Devereux, Lyric tragedy in three acts
Elisabetta, (Queen of England) Nelly Miricioiu (sop); Roberto Devereux, (Earl of Essex) José Bros (ten); Sara, (Duchess of Nottingham) Sonia Ganassi (mezzo); Duke of Nottingham, Roberto Frontali (bar); Lord Cecil, Robin Leggate, (ten); Raleigh, Graeme Broadbent (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London/Maurizio Benini
Recorded at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. July 2002
Full Price
OPERA RARA ORC24 [2CDs: 60.03+65.28]

It is axiomatic that hindsight is the most accurate of observations. With its benefit many commentators have ascribed to Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux an intensity of musical power and compositional complexity not found in Donizetti’s earlier works. These qualities, it is suggested, owe much to the personal tragedies afflicting the composer’s life during its composition. These involved the stillbirth of a son, the third consecutive post partum death his wife had suffered, and her own demise a few weeks later. Medically, it is conceivable that the children’s deaths were related to the syphilis that Donizetti carried, and doubtless transmitted to his wife. The tertiary stage of this infection was the cause of Donizetti’s mental deterioration and institutionalisation less than ten years later and contributed to his early death aged 51.

As is usual with Opera Rara, some of these matters and contemporary performances are examined in a scholarly essay in the detailed booklet (pp. 11-63). However, more cynical commentators have said that Roberto Devereux is ‘Lucia’ (1835) without the tunes. Whilst not denying Lucia’s popularity, it lacks the musical cohesiveness found in Devereux that in many ways links with the earlier ‘Anna Bolena’ (1830). By the mid-1830s, and in full command of his dramatic gifts, Donizetti had begun to subordinate mere vocal display to the needs of the drama. Cohesiveness rather than intensity is, in my view, the better description of the qualities of Roberto Devereux.

The libretto was by Salvatore Cammarano who provided the words for ‘Lucia’ and five other operatic works composed by Donizetti between 1836 and 1838. The libretto is clear in action and characterisation. Though pandering to the 19th century Italian romantic taste for tales of Tudor England, which allowed for period costumes, kings, queens, dungeons and great romantic passions, the plot was taken from a French tragedy by Jacques Ancelot. Mercadante had earlier set Ancelot’s text to music to a libretto by Felice Romani (1833). The premiere took place on 28th October 1837 at the San Carlo Theatre, Naples. It was a resounding success and was performed all around Italy as well as in Paris (1838), London, Brussels, Amsterdam (all in 1840), and New York (1863).

In simple form the plot concerns variations on a normal operatic love triangle. The Queen loves Roberto who in turn loves Sara. The Queen forced Sara to marry Nottingham whilst Roberto was away fighting in Ireland. On his return Roberto is accused of treachery and threatened with death by Parliament. The Queen assures him that if ever his life is in danger he has only to return a ring she had given him so as to ensure his safety. Roberto subsequently gives the ring to Sara in an exchange of tokens. Sara is prevented from delivering it to the Queen by her husband who believes her guilty of infidelity with his erstwhile friend. Meanwhile in a powerful prison scene Roberto awaits his release on delivery of the ring (CD2 trs. 10-12). By the time the Queen discovers the reason for the ring’s non-arrival Roberto has been executed.

Knowing the plot, I simply glanced at the cast list before loading CD 1. It was only then that I got the first of two, not wholly pleasant surprises. The first was evident in the first few minutes of the overture (CD 1 tr.1). The sound was not of the usual Opera Rara standard being much more closed and lacking in ‘airiness’. The second surprise came at the end of the sinfonia in the form of applause. I had wrongly assumed it was a standard Opera Rara studio recording. In fact it is a recording made live at a concert performance given at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London in July 2002. Covent Garden is a notoriously difficult recording venue, which probably accounts for my observations regarding the sound. Whether Opera Rara, with their well known predilection for rarely performed Donizetti were simply opportunistic in making the recording, or if economics determined a joint venture, I do not know. However, the constant intrusion of applause at the conclusion of arias etc. is a considerable drawback to appreciation of the dramatic cohesion and flow of the whole. As to the singers, my feelings are distinctly mixed. Nelly Miricioiu, who sings Elisabetta, is a great favourite in London and with Opera Rara for whom she has recorded a number of bel canto roles. Her strong characterisations are achieved by mastery of vocal style and technique matched by a voice capable of many colours across its wide range. She conveys Elisabetta’s moods of affection, frustration and anguish with her usual consummate skill. The bad news is that time is taking its toll. Legato, never Miricioiu’s strongest suit, is variable and there are times when the tone is distinctly thin. At the start of the cabaletta ‘Un lampo’ (CD1 tr. 9) the tone is too thin and not ideally steady and would doubtless have been corrected in a studio recording. As Roberto, José Bros has a rather thin tight tone (CD1 tr.7), although his voice opens up and his rendering of his aria in the prison scene (CD2 tr. 11) is rapturously and noisily received! However, his is not a bel-canto voice. It lacks the capacity to start a phrase with elegance and carry it forward with evenness. These skills should be in the compass of the well covered, full, if slightly throaty tone of Roberto Frontali as the Duke of Nottingham. He persists in using his vocal strengths too loudly and the effect becomes wearing. Variation of weight and tone of voice are heard to benefit in Sonia Ganassi’s Sara. Hers is bel-canto singing of quality, with subtle variations of tone, modulation and phrasing used to convey character and situation. She launches her scene with Roberto (CD1 trs 13-15) with the ideal support of the voice, smooth legato and the elegance of phrasing that is lacking in both her lover and husband’s portrayals. Her clear even enunciation also serves to accentuate José Bros’s nasality when he joins in. However, he, unlike Frontali, can and does sing softly from time to time. The conductor Maurizio Benini shapes the music well and supports, even over-indulges, his singers. It is difficult however, to comment on his grasp of the total dramatic structure of the work given so many interruptions for applause.

I have noted the scholarly booklet essay by Jeremy Commons (pp.11-63). There is also a good synopsis and performance history. The libretto is given in full with English translation. I have to write however, that I did not find it easy following the libretto particularly when singers duet or there are reprises. Opera Rara needs to indicate these situations. Nor am I greatly enamoured of the many colour plates of the participants in costume, formal concert dress or rehearsal casual. I would have preferred some up-to-date artist profiles replacing at least some of these. The performance listing shows that Beverly Sills sang the role of Elisabetta at the New York City Opera in 1966 and Edita Gruberova at Barcelona in 1990. Both singers recorded the role. Sills’ 1967 recording, with a good supporting cast was reissued by DG a couple of years ago. I failed to find a copy. I also had difficulty with Gruberova’s 1995 interpretation on the Nightingale label. My copy included that rare CD occurrence, a defective, unplayable, disc; the replacement never arrived! Both singers offer different interpretations to Nelly Miricioiu. Sills is very secure in the coloratura but lacks much tonal colour or dramatic expression. Gruberova, also secure above the stave, gives a more balanced and involving interpretation but lacks the variety of vocal colour that Miricioiu has in abundance. The rest of the Nightingale cast are variable although the Roberto is superior. All in all, given its ready availability and particularly Nelly Miricioiu’s more dramatic interpretation, this is the version to go for despite the drawback of the frequent interruptions of applause.

Robert J Farr

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