By Lynne Gray, PhD
Note: These streamed operas from the Met’s library can be seen at www.metopera.org.
Wednesday, April 29
Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux ~ 2Hrs and 40Mins
Starring Sondra Radvanovsky, Elīna Garanča, Matthew Polenzani, and Mariusz Kwiecien, conducted by Maurizio Benini. From April 16, 2016.
Tonight we change from a (substantially) villainous younger Elizabeth, to a (substantially) sympathetic declining Elizabeth in the last years of her reign. Sondra Radvanovsky stars as Elizabeth I in this final installment of Donizetti’s Three Queens operas. David McVicar’s production frames the dramatic story of the queen and the Earl of Essex (Roberto Devereux) as a play within a play unfolding before the members of her royal court. Radvanovsky’s portrayal of the aging monarch is an absolute tour de force, laying bare the terrible conflict between her public duties as the ruler of England and her private feelings as a woman in love. Matthew Polenzani is the Earl of Essex, who is the current object of the queen’s affections (same artist as last night, but it’s a different Roberto tonight!). The plot revolves around Devereux who is mortally torn between two women (sound familiar?). Elīna Garanča as Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham and Mariusz Kwiecien as her husband, the Duke, complete the star-studded quartet of principals. Maurizio Benini conducts.
So – the last bit of confusing (actual) history that should be cleared up here concerns the two Roberts of last night and tonight, and of course it has been made even more confusing by the fact that Matthew Polenzani plays both in this particular series. In fact, Elizabeth’s first “favorite” was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and her second was Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Aside from the complications caused by their having the same first names – and the same second initials – the situation is made even worse (you have to love British royal history!) by the fact that Devereux’s father died when he was nine and his mother married – wait for it – Robert Dudley! So, in essence, Essex replaced his stepfather, Leicester as the Queen’s favorite. Got it?
The time is now 1599, 12 years after the beheading of Maria Stuarda. Roberto (this time the Earl of Essex, not Leicester) is already in trouble when the opera opens, having led a losing military campaign in Ireland. He has returned to England to try to explain the Irish situation to Elizabeth, but without permission, so he now faces charges of dereliction of duty. This Roberto had once been a young hothead (he learned it from his stepfather, I suppose), toying with the smitten Elisabetta’s affections. But now he is a nearly broken man, returning in disgrace and, to top it off, hopelessly in love with Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham (now the wife of his good friend the Duke). Polenzani conveys both the character’s remnants of gallantry and his final frustrated yearnings in this particularly compelling performance.
As the opera begins, we are in the Great Hall at Westminster and Sara is reading a story that is a little bit too close to home for comfort while trying to hide her tears from the other ladies. (You might want to know that Sara loves Roberto as much as he loves her, but the jealous Elisabetta has forced Sara to marry Nottingham to get her out of the way!) Elisabetta enters and states that, at the insistence of Nottingham (Sara’s husband), she has agreed to see Roberto once again, but makes it clear (to Sara’s ever-increasing discomfort) that she will only pardon him if she can be convinced that he is still faithful to her.
Roberto is brought in and as the courtiers leave, Sara is even more distressed by the Queen’s obvious love for Roberto. Alone with Roberto, Elisabetta promises him that the ring she once gave him will always be the pledge of his safety should he ever return it to her. As she talks of their love, he is unfortunately cool and distracted – to the point that she finally asks him if he has a new love – and who it is. Unconvincingly claiming that there is no other, she is now convinced he has betrayed her. Nottingham enters, worried both about his friend Devereux and about his unhappy wife whom he has seen crying over a blue scarf she was working on (do remember the blue scarf!). He has to leave for the Council’s vote and assures Roberto that he will do everything he can to defend him.
The next scene finds Sara alone as Roberto enters accusing her of infidelity for marrying Nottingham. She tells him it was the Queen’s command and reminds him that he wears the Queen’s ring on his own finger. She tells him they must not see each other again (we saw how that worked out for Anna Bolena and Percy – and it’s not going to be much better here). She gives him the blue scarf as a token of her love. They have a beautiful farewell love duet and Roberto leaves to plan his escape.
In the second act, the plot thickens – of course – that’s what second acts are for! The Queen learns that the Council has decided on death for Roberto. When she asks why it took so long to decide, she is told that when he was arrested, he had a blue scarf hiding on his person that he refused to give up. As she is examining the scarf, Nottingham enters to plead for Roberto, but the Queen tells him she knows Roberto has been unfaithful. Roberto is brought in and she confronts him with the scarf to both his and Nottingham’s shock and surprise – which turns immediately to jealous fury on Nottingham’s part. Elisabetta offers Roberto his freedom if he will reveal her rival’s name. He refuses, of course, and she signs his death warrant while Nottingham fumes that the axe is too lenient a punishment.
All comes to a head (not to be too literal here) in the last act. Roberto has sent Sara the ring with a letter telling her to take it to the Queen and beg for mercy. Before she can do that however, Nottingham, still fuming of course, comes in and takes the ring and the letter – locking Sara in her chambers.
During the Tower of London scene, Polenzani has a chance to remind us that “Roberto” is the opera’s title character. He yearns for a pardon, but mostly so he can prove that Sara is innocent of adultery. The pardon does not come (no ring, no pardon) and he is led away to be executed.
In the final scene, Elisabetta frets and broods and cannot understand why Roberto has not sent her the ring. Sara arrives disheveled from her escape, but it is too late, a cannon shot signals Roberto’s death. Nottingham is not far behind and when the furious Elisabetta asks him why he prevented the ring from being brought to her, he answers, “Blood I wanted, and blood I got!”
In her final great aria, alone with her grief, Elisabetta is haunted by visions of the beheaded Roberto and wishes only to be free – free from her role as queen and free from life itself.
1. Matthew Polenzani as Roberto and Sondra Radvanovsky as Elizabeth I in “Roberto Devereux” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard
2. Matthew Polenzani, as Roberto and Mariusz Kwiecien as Nottingham in “Roberto Devereux” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard
3. Matthew Polenzani as the title character and Elina Garanča as Sara in “Roberto Devereux” at the Met. Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times
4. Elīna Garanča as Sara and Mariusz Kwiecien as Nottingham, in “Roberto Devereux” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard
5. Sondra Radvanovsky as Elizabeth I in “Roberto Devereux” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard.