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
. 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.
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
Even earlier another queen was memorably portrayed in Anna
(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.
we shouldn’t make too much fuss of this. The story, in short,
is as follows:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
see also review by Margarida Mota-Bull