Opera Daily 🎶 — Unpacking Roberto Devereux
This week's Opera Daily features Roberto Devereux (the final of the Tudor Trilogy)
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Today we are listening to Roberto Devereux (the final of the Tudor Trilogy) where Queen Elizabeth I is forced to sign the death warrant of the man she loves, Roberto Devereux.
After great success with the “Three Queens”, Donizetti’s operas were shelved until the revival of bel canto music in the mid-20th century. Since then, several women are known for their interpretation of all three queens, including Leyla Gencer, Montserrat Caballé, Mariella Devia (an extraordinary Italian bel canto specialist), Sondra Radvanovsky, but above all “America’s Queen of Opera”, Bubbles herself, Beverly Sills.
While there are many nuanced interpretations of the role of Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux, Beverly Sills became Elisabetta during this role.
She committed herself 100%, taking you on her emotional journey from a queen in love to one betrayed to one overwhelmed and desperate with grief. Not every note sounds beautiful, but that’s because Sills has committed to interpreting the character and channeling what her voice can do in whatever way is necessary to convey the emotional intent. Reminds me of Callas!
She is just like no other in this role. As you will see in the examples below, every movement Sills makes has intention and meaning, and she never breaks character.
Elisabetta was full of shrill sound and unbridled fury, Beverly Sills once explained. She’d lost the only man she’d ever loved, and she knew it all too well. The Queen of England had suddenly become a bitter, heartbroken old lady. She’d continue to be the most powerful woman in the world, but the rest of her days would be filled with frustrated, relentless rage.
(If you want to learn more about the amazing Beverly Sills, this is a great interview.)
The opera Roberto Devereux (1837) portrays the sad relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex. Towards the end of Elizabeth’s life, she is tired of the facade of royalty and nobility, and she doesn’t want it anymore. The role of Elizabeth is notoriously tricky. The American soprano Beverly Sills, who we are profiling today, once said it took five years off her career.
It is a long journey from the Elisabetta at the beginning of the opera, who is filled with love for Roberto and eagerly looks forward to seeing him. “The role of Elisabetta, I think, is the most taxing in the entire soprano bel canto repertoire,” said Beverly Sills.
Our listening examples today all come from a 1975 production of Roberto Devereux from Wolf Trap for New York City Opera with Beverly Sills (Elizabeth, Queen of England), John Alexander (Roberto Devereux), Susanne Marsee (Sara, Duchess of Nottingham), and Richard Fredricks (Duke of Nottingham), Julius Rudel, conductor, and Tito Capobianco, director.
🎧 Listening Example (5 minute listen): In her Act I opening aria, “L’amor suo mi fe beata” (“His love made me so happy”), Elisabetta tells Sara (secretly in love with Roberto herself) of her great love for Roberto. She said if someone stole his love from her it would be like “stealing her crown” and that his love was like a gift from heaven.
🎧 Listening Example (7 minute listen): In this Act II trio, “Alma infida ingrato core” (Part 1 below, Part 2 here), it is revealed to Nottingham that Roberto is in love with his wife Sara, and he vows revenge. The Queen demands that he reveal who her rival is or she will sign his death warrant…he does not and she does!
🎧 Listening Example (7 minute listen): The Final Scene of Roberto Devereux. [**HIGHLY RECOMMEND**] Elisabetta is still hoping Roberto Devereux will show repentance by sending her the ring and realizes she would rather he lived, even if he no longer loves her “Vivi ingrato” (Live, ungrateful one). Sara and the Duke enter with the ring, and Elisabetta begs her men to stop the execution. At that moment, however, a cannon shot announces Devereux’s death. The Duke declares he is responsible for Devereux’s demise “Sangue volli e sangue ottenni” (I wanted blood and blood I have obtained), and Elisabetta loses her mind. As she sings the aria “Quel sangue versato” (The blood you have spilled), she imagines she sees Devereux’s headless ghost and her throne turning into a tomb.
If you'd like another interpretation of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux's finale, here it is performed by Sondra Radvanovsky at The Metropolitan Opera in 2016.
Occasionally, the soprano playing Elisabetta will remove her wig and reveal a historically correct bald head while singing the final verse of “Quel sangue versato” during the last scene of the opera. This moment was made famous by Edita Gruberova.
Many sopranos make it a goal to sing as many operas in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy as possible. However, very few managed to sing all three: Leyla Gencer, Edita Gruberova, Beverly Sills, Sondra Radvanovsky, were some. On the other hand, Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas sang Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena, but neither attempted Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux.
Nearly all of Donizetti’s works have been overshadowed by his operas Lucia di Lammermoor and L'elisir d'amore (Elixir of Love). The main reason why Roberto Devereux has been almost completely forgotten is that the role of Queen Elizabeth I is nearly impossible to sing. As hard as Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena are for the soprano, this opera takes it to the next level.
This is even more of a reason for us to bow at the alter of these sopranos who not only attempted these roles but mastered them.
Grateful for your time and ears,
PS. Missed our last edition? We featured the English opera Peter Grimes by the contemporary British composer Benjamin Britten.
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