Robert Devereux, a review

(Written in April; whatever.)

Robert Deverux is an Italian, “Bel Canto” opera about Queen Elizabeth and a man she once loved who now, naturally, loves someone else. After discovering an opera called Norma on the radio last fall, I had a notion that Bel Canto – which is to say, lyrical, dramatic, and very difficult to sing – might be congenial. So I thought I’d give Donizetti a try.

Here’s the report.

As an instrumental composer, Mozart is far better. For profound dramatization of the lives of historical figures in and around the British court, stick with Shakespeare. But Oh, the man can write a dramatic aria, and heavens, these people can sing them. It was all those things above: lyrical, dramatic, and (I gather), very difficult to sing. It was great fun. It was a little ridiculous.

As far as I can make out, Robert Devereux is a fool. Everyone behaved badly, in the end. And I can’t quite grasp the motivations of any of them. One minute they’d be singing, “Oh, better if I were dead,” and the next, “go, spare my honor!” It was pretty much people in love, with problems, let’s sing a bunch of dramatic arias with poignant refrains. I was relieved to find that at least 80% of it is not historical.*

Perhaps the fundamental issue is the unsuitability of the style to the subject. English monarchs just don’t sing arias like this. It’s an English setting squished into an ornate Italian dramatic opera form, and the result is kind of odd.

That’s not entirely fair. Parts of it were quite evocative, when the drama and the music succeeded in bringing to life the difficult interplay between public duty and private griefs. There’s a beautiful aria of friendship with overtones of tragedy, as the one man has unwittingly married the woman the other loves. (He was my favorite character, until he botched it in Act III.) And there is an inherent drama in a world in which life and death, reputation and disgrace, seem to hang in an unstable balance, which few words or single actions can overturn. [A public figure could conceivably end up in jail after a political/romantic snafu these days, but he is extremely unlikely to be beheaded by noon the next day, to the regret of everyone.] Shakespeare made great work based on similar historical fodder. Robert Devereux is not an unreasonable choice of subject matter for a dramatic opera.

Perhaps Donizetti may not have made the most of his subject, but he does knows how to make great opportunities for opera singers. If I closed my eyes, I remembered why I was enthralled by Bel Canto on the radio. It is glorious. Perhaps it’s better not to have any idea what it’s about. In this case I think the music might actually have been hampered by the storyline.

But don’t despair, next year they’re doing Don Giovanni, and another Mozart I am not familiar with!

*Though, as far as I can tell, Robert Devereux may actually have been a fool in real life.

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