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Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, June 2009

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

Roberto Devereux was the inaugural production at the 2006 Bergamo Music Festival, previously the Festival Donizetti. Like the other two productions that year, Anna Bolena and Lucia di Lammermoor, it has made it onto DVD; the other two have previously been issued by Dynamic. Like Naxos’s DVD of Rossini’s La Cambiale di Matrimonio (2.110228), this Roberto Devereux is also issued under licence from Dynamic. A welcome Naxos advantage over the Dynamic counterparts is artist profiles, albeit only in English. There are also full track-listings for the dual-layered DVD, a brief essay on Donizetti’s life and an act-by-act synopsis, both given in English and German.

Roberto Devereux was Donizetti’s fifty-third opera. It was one of three, loosely based on the life of Elisabeth the first of England, and with much licence in respect of historical fact. It was premiered in Naples in 1837 two years after his highly successful Lucia di Lammermoor at the same theatre. It was written in the most fraught periods of the composer’s life. These involved the stillbirth of a son, the third consecutive post-partem death his wife had suffered. Her own demise followed a few weeks later from the complications of measles in her weak condition. Both deaths were probably connected 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. It contributed to his early death aged 51. With the benefit of hindsight many commentators have ascribed the undoubted intensity of musical power and compositional complexity, not found in his earlier works, to the personal tragedies endured during the composition. Others, of a more cynical bent have described the work as Lucia without the tunes! Whilst not denying Lucia’s popularity, it lacks the musical cohesiveness found in Roberto Devereux that in many ways relates to the earlier Anna Bolena (1830). Certainly 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 and dramatic intensity are the strengths of Roberto Devereux.

The libretto of Roberto Devereux was by Salvatore Cammarano who stood the same service for Lucia and five other operas composed by Donizetti between 1836 and 1838. 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, in reality 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). Cammarano’s libretto is clear in action and characterisation. Roberto Devereux was a resounding success at its premiere and quickly spread around Italy and was performed in Paris (1838), London, Brussels and Amsterdam (all in 1840), and New York (1863).

In simple form the plot concerns variations on a normal operatic love triangle. Queen Elisabetta loves Roberto, who in turn loves Sara. The Queen forced Sara to marry the Duke of 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. Her husband, who believes her guilty of infidelity with his erstwhile friend, prevents Sara from delivering it to the queen. Meanwhile in a powerful prison scene Roberto awaits his release on delivery of the ring. By the time the Queen discovers the reason for the ring’s non-arrival Roberto has been executed. In a perversion of history, as Elisabetta despairs at the execution of Roberto, she concedes her throne to James.

The designs and costumes of this traditional production are attributed on the box to David Walker. This does not tell the whole story, for which the viewer has to look carefully at the concluding credits, given in Italian. As I understand it the production originated at the Rome Opera and has been re-created and costumed for the Bergamo Festival performances. The new costumes by Cristina Aceti are in vivid colours and contrast with the rather dull drapes and backcloths in parts of the production. They might be dull, but they are appropriate. Elsewhere, imaginative use of opened curtains to reveal arches and garden pedestals add realism. The director moves the plot on without gimmicks and the video director is circumspect in his use of close-ups and the occasional superimposition. Add to these virtues some outstanding singing and acting, particularly from Dimitra Theodossiou as Elisabetta, and the performance has much to commend it. The Greek Dimitra Theodossiou must be tired of comparisons with Callas, particularly in this repertory in which her predecessor made such an impact early in her career. Her virtues include good diction allied to a clear and open tone without occluded notes. Dimitra Theodossiou’s voice is large and if not as beautiful or as smooth between the registers as Caballé, her acting ability compensates. She can, and does fine her large voice down for intimate moments, but it is in the big dramatic scenes such as the signing of Roberto’s death warrant (CH.16) and the finale (CHs.22–25) that her dark dramatic chest tone and wide variety of vocal colour and expression, allied to her acting prowess, come to the fore. These qualities combine to give an outstanding performance.

In the eponymous role, Massimiliano Pisapia uses his voice without much variation of colour or modulation. He can sing softly and does so at the start of the second aria of the dungeon scene (CH.21), but far too often he sings at full throttle and without much grace of phrasing or vocal expression. His figure, especially when in shirt rather than with cloak, is hardly that of a fighting soldier or romantic lover! The young American baritone Andrew Schroeder as the Duke of Nottingham sings strongly and acts well, whether defending his friend Roberto (CH.8), demanding a sword to fight him (CH.16) or when he believes that he has been deceived by his wife and denies her the opportunity to return Roberto’s ring to the Queen and thus save his life (CH.17). Schroeder does not have the ringing top to his voice of his illustrious predecessor Sherrill Milnes, but his assumption is a vocal and well-portrayed strength to the production. Schroeder is made up to look a little too old for his young wife Sara sung by Federica Bragaglia. She acts well and has a pleasing tone, good legato as well as variety of colour and expression (CHs.2 and 18) to give a pleasing overall interpretation.

The Bergamo Festival Chorus sings with vibrancy, whilst the orchestra play Donizetti’s music mellifluously under Marcello Rota’s idiomatic and well-paced interpretation. Cynics may say Roberto Devereux is Lucia without tunes, in reality it is an opera of high drama not lacking in melody. It is more in line with the composer’s first international success, Anna Bolena, and none the worse for that. This performance, with its traditional set, opulent costumes and direct production, can but add to its reputation.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2008

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

Roberto Devereux was the inaugural production at the 2006 Bergamo Music Festival, previously the Festival Donizetti. Like the other two productions that year, Anna Bolena and Lucia di Lammermoor, it has made it onto DVD; the other two have previously been issued by Dynamic. Like Naxos’s DVD of Rossini’s La Cambiale di Matrimonio (2.110228), this Roberto Devereux is also issued under licence from Dynamic. A welcome Naxos advantage over the Dynamic counterparts is artist profiles, albeit only in English. There are also full track-listings for the dual-layered DVD, a brief essay on Donizetti’s life and an act-by-act synopsis, both given in English and German.

Roberto Devereux was Donizetti’s fifty-third opera. It was one of three, loosely based on the life of Elisabeth the first of England, and with much licence in respect of historical fact. It was premiered in Naples in 1837 two years after his highly successful Lucia di Lammermoor at the same theatre. It was written in the most fraught periods of the composer’s life. These involved the stillbirth of a son, the third consecutive post-partem death his wife had suffered. Her own demise followed a few weeks later from the complications of measles in her weak condition. Both deaths were probably connected 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. It contributed to his early death aged 51. With the benefit of hindsight many commentators have ascribed the undoubted intensity of musical power and compositional complexity, not found in his earlier works, to the personal tragedies endured during the composition. Others, of a more cynical bent have described the work as Lucia without the tunes! Whilst not denying Lucia’s popularity, it lacks the musical cohesiveness found in Roberto Devereux that in many ways relates to the earlier Anna Bolena (1830). Certainly 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 and dramatic intensity are the strengths of Roberto Devereux.

The libretto of Roberto Devereux was by Salvatore Cammarano who stood the same service for Lucia and five other operas composed by Donizetti between 1836 and 1838. 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, in reality 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). Cammarano’s libretto is clear in action and characterisation. Roberto Devereux was a resounding success at its premiere and quickly spread around Italy and was performed in Paris (1838), London, Brussels and Amsterdam (all in 1840), and New York (1863).

In simple form the plot concerns variations on a normal operatic love triangle. Queen Elisabetta loves Roberto, who in turn loves Sara. The Queen forced Sara to marry the Duke of 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. Her husband, who believes her guilty of infidelity with his erstwhile friend, prevents Sara from delivering it to the queen. Meanwhile in a powerful prison scene Roberto awaits his release on delivery of the ring. By the time the Queen discovers the reason for the ring’s non-arrival Roberto has been executed. In a perversion of history, as Elisabetta despairs at the execution of Roberto, she concedes her throne to James.

The designs and costumes of this traditional production are attributed on the box to David Walker. This does not tell the whole story, for which the viewer has to look carefully at the concluding credits, given in Italian. As I understand it the production originated at the Rome Opera and has been re-created and costumed for the Bergamo Festival performances. The new costumes by Cristina Aceti are in vivid colours and contrast with the rather dull drapes and backcloths in parts of the production. They might be dull, but they are appropriate. Elsewhere, imaginative use of opened curtains to reveal arches and garden pedestals add realism. The director moves the plot on without gimmicks and the video director is circumspect in his use of close-ups and the occasional superimposition. Add to these virtues some outstanding singing and acting, particularly from Dimitra Theodossiou as Elisabetta, and the performance has much to commend it. The Greek Dimitra Theodossiou must be tired of comparisons with Callas, particularly in this repertory in which her predecessor made such an impact early in her career. Her virtues include good diction allied to a clear and open tone without occluded notes. Dimitra Theodossiou’s voice is large and if not as beautiful or as smooth between the registers as Caballé, her acting ability compensates. She can, and does fine her large voice down for intimate moments, but it is in the big dramatic scenes such as the signing of Roberto’s death warrant (CH.16) and the finale (CHs.22–25) that her dark dramatic chest tone and wide variety of vocal colour and expression, allied to her acting prowess, come to the fore. These qualities combine to give an outstanding performance.

In the eponymous role, Massimiliano Pisapia uses his voice without much variation of colour or modulation. He can sing softly and does so at the start of the second aria of the dungeon scene (CH.21), but far too often he sings at full throttle and without much grace of phrasing or vocal expression. His figure, especially when in shirt rather than with cloak, is hardly that of a fighting soldier or romantic lover! The young American baritone Andrew Schroeder as the Duke of Nottingham sings strongly and acts well, whether defending his friend Roberto (CH.8), demanding a sword to fight him (CH.16) or when he believes that he has been deceived by his wife and denies her the opportunity to return Roberto’s ring to the Queen and thus save his life (CH.17). Schroeder does not have the ringing top to his voice of his illustrious predecessor Sherrill Milnes, but his assumption is a vocal and well-portrayed strength to the production. Schroeder is made up to look a little too old for his young wife Sara sung by Federica Bragaglia. She acts well and has a pleasing tone, good legato as well as variety of colour and expression (CHs.2 and 18) to give a pleasing overall interpretation.

The Bergamo Festival Chorus sings with vibrancy, whilst the orchestra play Donizetti’s music mellifluously under Marcello Rota’s idiomatic and well-paced interpretation. Cynics may say Roberto Devereux is Lucia without tunes, in reality it is an opera of high drama not lacking in melody. It is more in line with the composer’s first international success, Anna Bolena, and none the worse for that. This performance, with its traditional set, opulent costumes and direct production, can but add to its reputation.






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