Gaetano Donizetti - Roberto Devereux
Nationaltheater, Munich 2005
Friedrich Haider, Christof Loy, Edita Gruberová, Roberto Aronica, Albert Schagidullin, Jeanne Piland, Manolito Mario Franz, Steven Humes, Nikolay Borchev, Johannes Klama
Sometimes when it comes to deciding how to stage an opera, whether in a traditional style or otherwise, it’s more than enough to just set the scene in as simple a fashion as possible and let the work speak for itself. This can be tricky in the case of a bel canto opera, particularly with Donizetti and certainly with his Tudor trilogy of operas (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux), where there is often not a great deal going on dramatically. Many directors will try to cover up the lack of dramatic action with elaborate sets and costumes, but not Christof Loy. Even though there isn’t indeed a great deal to the sets here in this 2005 production for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and, yes, even though it is inevitably taken out of its original historical Tudor setting, Loy nonetheless clearly recognises where the real strengths of the work lie and gives them prominence through attention to character and the acting performances, particularly in how they are expressed through the singing.
What passes for a plot in the case of Roberto Devereux is not particularly complex and not exactly faithful to historical fact in the first place, but it does deal with recognisable and timeless operatic themes like love and betrayal. There doesn’t appear to be a lot going on musically to explore these themes and the emotions they give rise to in any kind of depth or complexity, but you might be surprised at how much can be drawn from it if the work is treated respectfully and with a keenness of observation. The opera is actually quite compact, neatly structured and balanced in how it blends the political issues with the romantic ones and plays them off against each other. Devereux, Earl of Essex, faces a charge of treason for being merciful to the enemy forces he has routed in Ireland, but Queen Elizabeth I, in love with him, is of a mind to be lenient herself and save him from a sentence of death. As long as he is true to her and the ring that she has given him as a token of her protection. Devereux however is too concerned with his feelings for Sarah who has abandoned him and married Nottingham while Devereux was in Ireland. What is clever about the arrangement is the swapping of tokens (a ring and a scarf) which at the same time could save Devereux or see him condemned to death. There are worse kinds of betrayal than political failure.
While there is a neat symmetry to the construction, the strengths of the work lie not so much in the plot or the libretto as much as in how the drama is expressed musically - through exquisite melodies, arias and, of course, through the expressive ornamentation of the coloratura. which in this case is admirably much more restrained than is typical for a bel canto lyrical tragedy. The interpretation given by the singers is therefore of primary importance, and in a theatrical environment that can be enhanced further through a considered stage direction that gives the performers the necessary space for expression. It’s this sense of dramatic potential and expression that I’ve always found to be one of the strengths of Christof Loy as a director. With a terrific cast here in the four main roles to take care of the singing confidently - particularly with Edita Gruberova as Queen Elizabeth I - Loy places the emphasis on the central theme and ensures that the acting and interaction between the characters works to bring that out to the fullest. The result is a simply chillingly and powerful account of a work that - like Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda - has far more going for it than just being a romanticised historical drama.
For director Christof Loy, his principal interest in the work is indeed the human feelings that lie beneath the surface impressions of a woman in power. It’s not surprising then, considering the English setting, that in updating the work to a modern context, Loy makes reference to a woman more recognisable than Elizabeth I and more politically powerful and dangerous than Elizabeth II. There’s unquestionably a similarity to Margaret Thatcher here in the dress sense and hair styling of Edita Gruberova’s Queen Elizabeth. With a wry sense of humour then, nearly all the action takes place indeed in Westminster, but in a modern-day government press-office that is all wood panelling and leather armchairs, where the functionaries in smart business suits gossip by the water cooler over the latest headlines in the tabloid press - “Seducer Returns”, “Off With His Head”. It’s a nice touch, one that makes the most of the chorus, showing them muttering to each other, whispering rumours and rolling eyes, creating the kind of environment of gossip and scandal played out in public that drives the intrigue throughout.
It’s remarkably effective, characteristically Christof Loy, maximising the potential of the conflict between faithless treacherous men and blazing vengeful women at the heart of the drama in the simplest way possible, giving it an air of naturalism that one isn’t accustomed to find in a production of an operatic historical drama. The same kind of detail, with particular attention to the acting, is of course evident in all the main performances. There is a fine performance from Roberto Aronica as Devereux, which includes a lovely heartfelt Act III ‘A te dirò negli ultimo singhiozzi’ and a fine ‘Dacché tomasti, ahi misera’ duet between Devereux and Jeanne Piland’s excellent Sarah. Albert Schagidullin demonstrates a fine legato line and beautifully clear diction as Nottingham, his soft dignified bass befitting the nature of his character. It’s Edita Gruberova however who delivers the truly standout performance of the evening. Given terrific motivation through the direction, her performance is committed and perfectly controlled, delivering vengeful utterances with ringing authority and conviction, drawing full expression out of the magnificent coloratura. Her crumbling self-destruction at the end of the opera is simply devastating and it brings the house down.
The DVD from Deutsche Grammaphon also includes a fine 20-minute documentary on the making of the production. Half of the featurette is on the production itself, with input from Christof Loy and Friedrich Haider, who interestingly calls Roberto Devereux “the Elektra of bel canto opera, and you can see where he’s coming from. The other half of the featurette focuses on the filming of the production by Brian Large, getting behind the scenes and showing the work and planning involved in recording an opera for the screen. The quality of the DVD itself is excellent in terms of audio and video quality (in widescreen). Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Chinese.