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Gaetano Donizetti: Roberto Devereux
21 Mar 2007

DONIZETTI: Roberto Devereux

Asked in an interview by Opera News on his opinion on updating, James Levine replied that it often intensified one or another aspect of the story but that in general it was not possible to update without distorting the story and the equilibrium in the whole opera.

Gaetano Donizetti: Roberto Devereux

Edita Gruberova (Elisabetta), Roberto Aronica (roberto), Albert Schagidullin (Nottingham), Jeanne Piland (Sara), Manolito Mario Franz (Cecil), Steven Humes (Gaultiero), Nikolay Borchev (Paggio), Johannes Klama (Giacomo). Bayerische Staatsorchester conducted by Friedrich Haider. Staged by Christof Loy – Video Direction by Brian Large.

Deutsche Grammophon 073 418-5 [DVD]

$27.98  Click to buy

I’m still searching which small detail director Loy succeeded in highlighting in this modern production that otherwise would have escaped me in a traditional one. It takes less than a minute to realize the ridiculousness of it all. At the royal palace in London cleaners enter with Royal Cleaning Service in bold letters on their uniforms; probably for fear we would otherwise not have caught the originality of the concept. Soon after, all members of Parliament are looking into their own copy of The Sun, England’s popular tabloid well-known for its coverage of royals. Loy had a special edition of The Sun printed telling us on its front page: “Seducer returned” “Devereux is back”. From that moment on the story turns from ridiculous to risible. If one uses telling and realistic details, one asks the audience to accept the rest of the story as really possible as well. Therefore one is asked to believe that modern Parliament can condemn anyone to death and that the actual Queen Elizabeth is able to act without a single member of Her Majesty’s Government to be noted within hundreds of miles — a problem not existing in a traditional production as the real queen Elizabeth I not only reigned but governed as well.

To muddy the waters somewhat more Loy asks his prima donna to remove her red wig at the end revealing a few tufts of grey hair (a wig as well) which is quite compatible with the last days of the real Tudor Queen. This reviewer doesn’t like traditional productions per definition. Update if you want and if it is possible; but do it consequently and put some work in it. That means more than just putting singers in modern dress and having them read The Sun. That means replacing the historical names and even changing the words in the libretto. No modern Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham would dream of referring to Rosamunde (mistress of King Henry II and incidentally another opera by Donizetti) as most members of parliament wouldn’t know whom she was singing about. In a traditional production this is of course wholly acceptable as every nobleman in the 16th Century, and even every Italian opera lover of Donizetti’s time, knew who fair Rosamunde was. But this means new and unfashionably hard work and maybe madame Gruberova would refuse to sing a wholly new text.

Updating means too that one knows how to handle a chorus but the only solution Loy finds during most scenes consists of chorus members and soloists shaking hands and clapping each other on the back in the most dreadful old-fashioned way possible. And when the Duchess hands over the ring which can save Devereux’ life to the queen, this cannot be done standing but has the two ladies crawling as worms on the floor.

As could be expected one of the main Munich papers hailed the production as “an overwhelming chamber play with precise gestures and unflagging dramatic conviction”. Their reviewer probably has the necessary hamburger-mentality this writer lacks. Opera according to one of its modern prophets, one Robert Wilson, has to be savoured as a hamburger; layer for layer and not as a whole. So there needn’t be a straight relation between music, text, surtitles, costumes and sets as long as each element is fine on its own. Mr. Loy is fine apostle of this creed. Moreover, I admit freely he is a great entrepreneur. His productions of Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg and Hänsel und Gretel which I saw at De Munt and De Vlaamse opera were almost identical. Now that’s the right spirit, cashing in twice for the same idea.

Such a production cannot but diminish the musical aspects which is a sorry thing indeed . Gruberova was 59 at the time of recording (almost the exact age of queen Elizabeth when she had her fling with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and stepson of the great love of her life, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester) and thus she has, probably involuntary, ‘le fysique du role’. She is less than a minute on the scene and she already sings a stunningly beautiful trill. Throughout she is in very good voice — lashing out when necessary and proving her technical mastery with a series of examples of ‘messa di voce’, trills and pearly coloratura. There is no hint of a wobble or breathiness. She, as the saying goes, sings better than most coloraturas twenty years younger. She only betrays her age by the one weakness she always gives in to: no one is clearly able to convince her to renounce a difficult not to be found in the score C or D at the end of a cabaletta, as nowadays these notes are mostly flat and, as a consequence, she somewhat spoils her magnificent arias in the first act and during the final scene.

Tenor Roberto Aronica sings better than I remember from his live performances. His is not the most sensuous sound, but it is a real Italian voice with a good metal core. He sings sensitively with fine diminuendi and good and strong high notes.

Albert Schagidullin has a strong and beautiful bass-baritone, reminding me of the noble sound of young Ettore Bastianini. He too knows how to phrase and it’s probably not his fault his Duke of Nottingham looks rather comic with his modern horse tail hair.

Jeanne Piland has a clear fine mezzo but looks as old as the Queen herself. It’s difficult to believe in Devereux’ passion.

Conductor Friedrich Haider proves his reputation as a singer’s conductor to be true. Everybody is clearly at ease though there is vitality in his reading. He also gives us the full score and that means two verses of the many cabalettas.

The picture quality is very high but there is a problem with synchronizing. No actual date of performance is given. We only learn there were performances on four days in May 2005. This DVD therefore was probably culled from several performances but in the editing things went wrong from time to time as there are several moments where singing and mouth positions do not correspond.

Jan Neckers

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