Salvatore Cammarano (libretto)
Nationaltheater, March 8, 2010
to be repeated at the Münchner Opernfestspiele: June 30 and July 4, 2010
Conductor – Friedrich Haider
Stage Direction – Christof Loy
Set and costume design – Herbert Murauer
Lighting – Reinhard Traub
Dramaturg – Peter Heilker
Chorus director Andrés Máspero
Elisabetta – Edita Gruberova
Herzog von Nottingham – Paolo Gavanelli
Sara – Sonia Ganassi
Roberto Devereux – José Bros
Lord Cecil – Francesco Petrozzi
Sir Gualtiero Raleigh – Steven Humes
Ein Page Robertos – John Chest
Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper
Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux (1837) is quite a rarity, and many who are new to it might be tempted to assume that this is rather well justified. It could be said that the librettist Cammerano concocted a travesty of the story of Elizabeth and Essex, with singularly unappealing characters tied up in a knot of bad faith and vengefulness (one might equally say that of Wagner’s Ring, of course), and that Donizetti glossed over it with course after course of conventional emotivity bathed in meretricious bel canto sauces. However, after seeing and hearing this at first seemingly rather strange and off-putting but passionately committed production, only the most rigidly prejudiced will refuse to admit that they have been fascinated and moved. Conductor Friederich Haider, above all, conveyed his belief in Roberto Devereux’s quality and power through his deep understanding of bel canto as a psychological and dramatic idiom. In fact his contribution was equalled by the magnificent performances of Edita Gruberova and Paolo Gavanelli. Christof Loy’s production, which sets the action in modern Britain, may seem perverse at first and Herbert Murauer’s set and costumes singularly depressing, but eventually the distracting contemporary details vanish, as one abandons oneself to Donizetti’s spell.
In fact, during the entire first act, and perhaps even beyond, I could not get rid of the thought that the production interacted with the opera more as an irritant than as a setting or support, steadily going against the grain of Cammerano’s Elizabethan atmosphere with constant reminders of the dowdiness of the quasi-unisex business suits worn by contemporary policy-makers, and the averted glances and cover behind newspapers seemed as much at odds with Elizabethan court manners as a convincing Botox-Age equivalent. Most disturbing was the disjunction between Loy’s self-contained, even furtive social norm and the intense outbursts and continuous floods of emotion created by Donizetti in his florid melodic lines and forceful gestures in the orchestra. This sort of allopathic dramaturgy has gone through its ups and downs in fashion since the Second World War. At first it seemed superfluous and wilful, but after one got through it to the music and its emotional course, it seemed more like a salutary resistance, which in the end made the true essence of the opera—never out of sight for Maestro Haider—shine through all the more brilliantly—at its own expense, ultimately, since the more one became absorbed in Roberto Devereux, the less attention one paid to the production.
I’ve yet to see any “innovative” production that took care of all the details written into the work and avoided every arbitrary distraction. Here the intrusion of the old romantic cliché of the Byronic open collar, which set Devereux apart from the Parliamentary bureaucrats who are bent on his execution, and Elisabetta’s striking resemblance to Margaret Thatcher seemed especially liable to ridicule. (If only I hadn’t followed Denis’ exploits years ago in Private Eye!) On the other hand contemporary touches like the self-effacing, fearful manner of the cleaners and the zest with which the Parliamentarians pursued torture made the iniquities and horrors of our own time more present—an effective ploy in making the audience take the story seriously, which was—most commendably—the basic purpose of every one involved. There was none of the condescension and arch self-consciousness of, say, Mary Zimmerman’s recent production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula at the Met (which had many likeable traits as well). Loy’s and Murauer’s work was rooted in the best intentions, and in the end it did it its job well.
Friederich Haider has been exploring this repertoire in collaboration with Edita Gruberova for some years. There is a recording of a Strasbourg production that dates back to 1996, and this production was made available on DVD in 2006. Beyond that, it enjoyed a limited renaissance as a Beverly Sills vehicle in the late 1960’s. Gruberova is well along in her career, and it would be unrealistic to pretend that her age does not compromise her performance somewhat, mainly in the wandering intonation of the extremes of her range. Otherwise her articulation is mostly impeccable, showing remarkably few moments of fuzziness. With these reservations, her voice was full and dramatic—one might say, fiery—throughout her range, musically and dramatically thrilling to the highest degree, and to hear her sing one aria suffices to justify the entire production. She is not the only singer who understands the dramatic power of bel canto, but she has been said to be the only one who can negotiate the technical and emotive demands of a grand role like Elisabetta with such presence. Her performance bore this out to the fullest and was rewarded with seemingly endless applause and even a display of banners from young fans.
Mme. Gruberova’s Essex, José Bros, made the most of a light, but thoroughly balanced tenor, energized with a dash of heroic timbre. The crux of the plot hangs on Devereux’s rekindled passion for Sara, the wife of his most loyal friend and staunchest supporter—the very man who might possibly safe him from the block. Cammerano and Loy seem to agree heartily that he is a dubious character. His humanity towards the Irish is indeed humanity, but his compatriots agree that it is treachery. As the action unfolds Devereux manages to betray all of those who love him: Elisabetta, Sara, and her husband, the Earl of Nottingham. This is not an easy role, but Bros executed it with a fine voice, a sense of style, and honesty.
The Earl of Nottingham is the most interesting and appealing character in the opera, although he becomes a monster in the end. He shows the most sincere and loyal friendship towards Devereux and puts himself in a difficult position by offering to help him in Parliament. His discovery of his friend’s relationship with his wife was skilfully paced by creators, and his rage is entirely convincing. His emotions throw him into a most extreme reversal, and he is cruel both to his wife and her lover. Devereux would have survived, if Nottingham had not imprisoned Sara, who can only speak for Devereux too late. Paolo Gavanelli acted and sang the role on an uncompromisingly grand scale. His portrayal was intense and large, and his singing was impeccable in terms of bel canto style and theatrically. The effect was hair-raising, a truly great interpretation.
Sonia Ganassi was almost as vivid as Gruberova as Sara, and she used her clear, agile voice very neatly amidst all the passion. In fact all the soloists were on a very high level, but I’d like to single out John Chest, who made a vivid impression in his small role as Devereux’s page.
The evening, which earned a lengthy series of ovations for all, especially Mme. Gruberova, proved a powerful vindication of this revival of an unfamiliar opera by a master. Gaetano Donizetti wrote over 70 operas, only a few of which continue in the repertoire. The indefatigable work of Haider and Gruberova may not have achieved a revival of the solidity and extent enjoyed by Handel’s operas, but the thrilled audience at the Nationaltheater will not forget Roberto Devereux any time soon.