Roberto Devereux

Composed by Gaetano Donizetti, libretto by Salvatore Cammarano
Welsh National Opera
Bristol Hippodrome

The last of Gaetano Donizetti’s so-called Tudor trilogy of operas, Roberto Devereux is loosely based on Elizabeth I’s late-flowering passion for the traitorous Earl of Essex. WNO’s revival of its 2013 production, directed by Alessandro Talevi, embraces an intriguing concept not entirely realised in its staging. Yet it more than makes up for this with a gloriously rousing vocal and orchestral performance.

At its heart, Salvatore Cammarano’s 1837 libretto is essentially an entangled love quadrangle: Sara is broken-hearted that her yearning for Roberto, Earl of Essex, can never be satisfied as she is trapped in marriage to the Duke of Nottingham. The Duke, a close friend of Roberto’s, is also adviser to Queen Elisabetta, but it is for the Earl that Elisabetta reserves her desire.

The repeated appearance of a spider motif to portray Elisabetta is theoretically apt. Donizetti’s Queen in her later years is venomous and all-consuming; two moths signifying Roberto and Sara are prey to her power. Yet in realisation, this fixation with arachnids mostly distracts; the strange glowing box of insect projections and spidery metal chariot throne with thrashing umbrella-spoke legs. It all throws up unanswered questions about what clunky, dystopian universe we are supposed to be inhabiting.

There are more successful touches. The spider’s web ties that bind Roberto in imprisonment are simple and effective in their visual symbolism, as are the chorus’s outstretched hands clamouring at the gloomy glass panels dividing the Queen from her courtiers. And while the mood is overwhelmingly corseted, dark and austere, this does allow a striking contrast with Elisabetta’s scarlet carnivalesque costume.

Transcending all these caveats though is the sheer quality of the bel canto; Justina Gringytė captivates from the first with the smooth, rich texture of her vocals as Sara, while Joyce El-Khoury is in control of the demands of the notoriously difficult role of Elisabetta. In her flowing vocal embellishment, she still brings a sense of the vulnerability behind the myth of Gloriana; her final aria “Vivi, ingrato” is full of the aching poignancy and loss of an aging woman who has sacrificed so much to retain her crown, steeped in unrequited love.

Rhys Jenkins is in fine form standing in for Roland Wood as the Duke of Nottingham, while Barry Banks as Roberto, though in danger of being out-sung at times in duet, excels in his later tortured aria upon facing death. And, as ever, the WNO chorus, though not so much required in this work as other operas, is still an aural delight.

James Southall, picking up the baton from the esteemed Carlo Rizzo, vigorously reflects the on-stage experience, his youthful conducting full of flowing gestures that are entertaining to watch in their own right. The WNO orchestra responds with an energetic performance attuned to the unfolding melodrama, stretching from a dazzling opening overture with its ironic take on “God Save the Queen” to the subtlety and pathos of moments of quieter reflection.

In culmination, WNO’s Roberto Devereux becomes an immersive experience; this may be a 19th century opera but, rather than typically dying of consumption, here a woman holds the power over life and death. Overlook the questionable aspects of the production’s staging and catch it while you can for musical splendour par excellence.

Claire Hayes