Kiss of the Spider Queen – ‘Roberto Devereux’ at the WMC

3 Oct

Roberto Devereux

Having been mightily impressed by the staging – even if I wasn’t blown away by the music – in the WNO’s Anna Bolena, I jumped at the chance to watch the next part of Donizetti’s loose Tudor-themed trilogy, Roberto Devereux. 

This opera is the shortest of the three, and chronologically the last installment, and it brings to a close the Tudor dynasty, ending with (SPOILER ALERT) Queen Elizabeth I abdicating and handing her throne over to James I.

"Say whaaat?"

“Say whaaat?”

“Erm,” I hear you say. “But didn’t Elizabeth die before James became king?”

Yes. Yes she did. And do you know what Gaetano Donizetti says to that? “Fuck you and your historical accuracy,” is what he says. Followed by, “I’m Gaetano Donizetti, bitch.” You see, as already mentioned in my previous post, Donizetti’s approach to British history was more than a little cavalier. With the real life Elizabeth dying an inconvenient 2 years after the real life Earl of Essex, the composer and his librettist Salvadore Cammarano decided to throw the history books out of the window and just make that shit up.

So, instead of a nuanced tale in which Devereux – Earl of Essex and Elizabeth’s favourite – incurs the wrath of both his queen and the privy council by getting a bit big for his boots, we have a tawdry love quadrangle in which Elizabeth loves Devereux, but Devereux loves Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, wife of the Duke of Nottingham… whose real-life counterpart married women called Catherine and Margaret, but never a Sara. To which Donizetti would no doubt say, “What the fuck did you expect me to do? Ain’t got no Wikipedia. This is the 1830s. And besides… I’m Gaetano Donizetti, bitch.”

He's played here by Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul.

His attitude is just the worst.

Similar licence is taken by the WNO. Like Anna Bolena, the costumes and sets here are – on the whole – kept to a minimum, with the chorus and supporting cast dressed in black, quasi-Elizabethan get-up, the backdrops painted matte black with the occasional – and often sinister – use of an opaque screen. Whereas in Anna Bolena we had to wait for the opera’s climax for the introduction of colour, with the doomed Anne donning a red cloak before marching off to the scaffold, here her daughter Elizabeth (Alexandra Deshorties) is clad in Vivienne Westwoodish red from the start. In Anna Bolena the cloak symbolises blood; in Roberto Devereux we have a queen already drenched in the stuff.

If this understated, ahistorical approach to costume offends the purists, I’d love to know what they make of the giant mechanical spider. Yes, you read that correctly. At a particularly dramatic point in the opera, with Devereux’s fate hanging in the balance, Elizabeth climbs onto her large and decidedly spindly looking throne – which proceeds to stalk after him like a giant spider.

Roberto Devereux

It’s a startling image, matched – thankfully – by the composer actually growing a pair.

In Anna Bolena any moments of high emotion, whether it was melancholy, passion or terror, are undercut time and time again by Donizetti resorting to bizarrely inappropriate rum-ti-tum-ti-tum motifs, as if he thought anything more furious or emotional would be uncouth. Here, in an opera composed only 3 years later, he occasionally dares to take off his gloves. This is heard, from the word go, in the overture. Whereas Anna Bolena’s is pleasant but a tad bland, Roberto Devereux’s is what would happen if God Save the Queen (the anthem, not the Sex Pistols tune) was reworked by a firework-obsessed ADHD sufferer, and it really sets the tone for what follows.

It’s understandable, then, with the opera consisting of increasingly (melo)dramatic set pieces, that director Alessandro Talevi should choose to give it such an eccentric, almost David Lynch-like treatment, with Deshortie’s terrifying Elizabeth a cross between Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond and a velociraptor in a frock. The touches of Grand Guignol toward the end were much appreciated too, and helped add a little punch to Donizetti’s music, which – despite his growing a pair and taking off his gloves etc. – still keeps well away from emotional extremes. The sudden flash of light revealing a forest of severed heads on spikes was particularly heart-stopping, as was the stark silhouette of the Queen against blood red lighting at the beginning of Act 2.

Roberto Devereux

Where the opera fails is again down to a combination of Donizetti and real life, rather than this particular production. His Devereux – despite some great work from (the very easy on the eye) Leonardo Capaldo – remains an unconvincing tortured hero, even after he’s given his own “woe is me” prison cell aria, and knowing just how scheming and arrogant his real-life counterpart was doesn’t help matters. What’s more, both he and the Duke of Nottingham (David Kempster) are written as hot-blooded and phlegmatic in a way that seems more Mediterranean than English… but perhaps it wouldn’t have functioned as opera had Nottingham responded to his wife’s infidelity in the manner of John Le Mesurier.

"Having an affair with the Earl of Essex, you say? Oh, well. Can't be helped."

“Having an affair with the Earl of Essex, you say? My word…”

If, after two installments (I’m seeing Maria Stuarda on Saturday) I’ve learned anything about Donizetti, and about the WNO’s Three Queens Trilogy, it’s that the trick is simply to let go, to stop harking after the emotional turmoil of later Verdi, and to forget everything you’ve read about the Tudors, and treat them as surreal and tragic melodramas with singing. Then, they make for a very entertaining experience.

2 Responses to “Kiss of the Spider Queen – ‘Roberto Devereux’ at the WMC”

  1. emyr Iris at 11:16 pm #

    please do not add David Starkey’s horrible face to your blog site. Puts me off reading it…….


  1. “Och, where’s ma heed?” – ‘Maria Stuarda’ at the WMC | A Forest of Beasts -

    […] second wife; then, on Wednesday, it was the turn of Elizabeth I in the truly showstopping Roberto Devereux. Last night the stage was taken once again by Elizabeth I, squaring up to her nemesis and cousin, […]

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