Gaetano Donizetti: Roberto Devereux (1837)


Portrait of Robert Devereux by Marcus Gheeraerts the Young, circa 1596. 

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes. In honour of the 100th anniversary of the execution of Mata Hari I present an opera that revolves around another famous historical execution, that of Robert Devereux. However, this opera is also one of Donizetti’s most melodic scores. The recording is a live performance with Montserrat Caballe as Queen Elizabeth and Jose Carreras in the title role (pictured in the featured image) and includes subtitles in French.

PLOT: London, 1600-1601. Queen Elizabeth is in love with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and so is Sara, the new wife of the Duke of Nottingham. The Duke is extremely jealous and plots to have Robert executed after he enters a peace treaty with the Irish against the order of the Queen.

ACT 1 (59 minutes)

0: The overture starts with some high dramatics and then, wait for it, “God Save the Queen”! This is possibly Donizetti’s best overture **; the sense of doom that will overwhelm by the end of the opera is immediately conveyed, but in the most melodic way imaginable.

Scene 1: The Great Hall, Westminster.

16, 19: Sara comes on with her ladies and reads the story of Rosamond (also a Donizetti opera) the lover of Henry II. She tries to keep a happy front for the other women but inwardly she is extremely sad. The aria is okay and foreshadows a lot, but it is rather uneventful musically (I actually barely noticed it I’m afraid). Elizabeth arrives and mounts the throne. She has decided to release Robert from prison (he was under arrest for treason), at the advice of the Duke of Nottingham (Robert’s best friend). Elizabeth reveals her love for Robert in a lovely aria **. Lord Cecil arrives angered because Parliament considers the Queen to lenient with Robert. She decides not to sign a warrant in some more melodic bel canto *.

23, 26: Robert’s entrance before the Queen is one of the most fetching recitatives in operatic history ** and is possibly the first time that a moment in an Italian opera might be literally termed “sexy”. The duet that follows is at about the same level **. The Queen is stately and slightly too cool but Robert is sex on legs vocally. He vows fidelity to her, she comments “but not love?”. She gives him a (plot important) ring as a pledge of favour should he ever need it.

37, 42: The Duke of Nottingham arrives and Robert says that in his eyes he saw his own death. Again Robert is musically dominant for a time but then the Duke takes on what I suppose is a two part aria ** in which he talks about (among other things) how his wife is knitting a blue shawl. Cecil arrives and says that the Queen has requested audience wit him immediately. He goes, but not before he finishes the aria *.

Scene 2: Sara’s apartments.

56: Sara comes on with the shawl (not blue for some reason). Robert arrives and they get into an argument because he is angry that she married Nottingham while being in love with him (Robert). It was the Queen’s order says she and they are reconciled. She sees the Queen’s ring on his finger and believing him to now be the royal favourite she gives him the shawl she was knitting and with that they recognize that they must not see each other ever again so they say goodbye and Robert leaves. At first the scene is somewhat sluggish and plotting but the last two minutes are wonderful **.

ACT 2: (24 minutes)

Same as Act 1 Scene 1.

8: The Parliament and Court assemble before Cecil gives the Queen the verdict regarding Robert. The men are sedate but a female chorus arrives which is a bit more chatty. The music is stately, almost catatonic, and frankly a little boring. Cecil informs the Queen that Parliament is overriding her and ordering for Robert’s execution. Sir Walter Raleigh arrives and tells the Queen (who is furious that the verdict took SO long) that one of the reasons for the delay was that Robert had a shawl in his possession and had refused to hand it over. Raleigh presents it to the Queen. Nottingham arrives pleading for Robert **. The Queen goes over how faithless Robert is shows Nottingham the shawl, he recognizes it and instantly he wants Robert’s head on a silver platter, actually worse, he thinks decapitation is too good for him.

15: Elizabeth offers to spare Robert if he will reveal the name of his lover. He refuses in order to protect Sara in front of her husband who is also present. The trio and Elizabeth’s invocation are both very lovely **.

22: Elizabeth demands that Robert talk, he refuses again and so she signs his execution warrant in front of everyone. Then we embark on one of Donizetti’s greatest and most dramatic act finales ***. Elizabeth has Robert placed back under arrest.

ACT 3: (38 minutes)

Scene 1: Same as Act 1 Scene 2.

4: Sara is waiting around when a messenger arrives with Robert’s ring and a letter telling her to bring it to the Queen immediately in order to save him from the block. Nottingham arrives and he forces his wife to hand over the letter to him. Now that he knows everything Sara protests her innocence (which is technically true). The orchestration here, particularly in the strings following along Nottingham, is the most interesting bit musically, but no star. Suddenly the funeral march can be heard as Robert is taken to the tower to await execution. Knowing that she can save him with the ring, Nottingham has his wife placed under guard to stop her. Musically the scene is probably the most fragmentary in the opera because musically it never decides on a specific melody and just floats around. This isn’t terrible though (albeit asymmetrical) and in the last minute or so things start to go into force 8.

Scene 2: Robert’s cell in the Tower of London.

11: The scene starts with a doom and gloom prelude.

15: Robert’s cavatina is yet again very fetching, passionate, and in spite of the deadly circumstances more than just a little bit sexy ***. He wonders why the ring has not been given to the Queen yet, but refuses to think that Sara has betrayed him to be slaughtered. Cecil arrives to take him to be executed.

20: Robert greets death with a bizarrely jovial cavatina **, watch out especially for the ending.

Scene 3: Same as Act 1 Scene 1 and Act 2.

27: The introduction is stately but less dull. Elizabeth is worried because Sara is not around to comfort her in this moment and the ring has not arrived so there is nothing that can be done to stop the execution. After much recitative consisting of Elizabeth’s terror over the impending decapitation with choral interjections her aria *** is absolutely amazing bel canto.

32: After again wondering where Sara is, the mezzo finally arrives with the fatal ring and confesses to being the Queen’s rival. Elizabeth is about to stop the execution when the cannons go off announcing his death. Nottingham arrives and admits to having had Sara arrested to stop her from saving Robert’s life because he wanted revenge on his former friend. She orders the couple out of her presence. Elizabeth starts to go mad in the most amazing way possible, a coloratura soprano bel canto aria ***. She fantasizes about Robert’s headless ghost coming to torment her. She orders that she is abdicating the throne to James of Scotland and collapses as the curtain falls.

This is an amazing little opera written during a time of tragedy for Donizetti. His wife had just died and the subject matter seems to have been very inspiring for him. It includes some of the composer’s best soprano and (especially) tenor music with the roles of Elizabeth and Robert being two of the most psychologically challenging from the 1830s. Nottingham is also interesting, but Sara appears uniquely to not have given Donizetti must inspiration. The role is for mezzo-soprano which means that regardless of the number, the male singer in any ensemble will be more musically interesting. She is also somewhat boring. The opera moves very quickly from one tableau to another (six in total although there are only three sets since one scene is repeated once and another twice) so that the opera actually leaves you wanting another fifteen or thirty minutes. The best numbers are Robert’s interview with the Queen in act 1, the act 2 finale, Robert’s prison aria and the entirety of the last scene in act 3.  If I had to pick on two numbers for being dull they would be Sara’s opening aria and the chorus that starts act two. Everything else, as my star ratings indicate, is beautiful and when Robert is on stage the music also has a raw bit of sex appeal. A-.

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