Donizetti was not the type of composer who would let his creative juices be stoppered up by the dry cork of historical plausibility. The plot of Roberto Devereux has a kind of inspired mix of the not entirely wrong and the patently ridiculous – which as far as I am concerned is why it’s so much fun. That and the music, of course.
The story takes place in a kind of accordioned-up version of the years between 1599 and 1601. Roberto Devereux, the Earl of Essex, returns from Ireland, where he had been quashing the Irish. He was not supposed to come back, but here he is. Parliament, who – collectively, I guess – hate his guts because he is such hot shit, are attempting to do him for treason. Elizabeth is more concerned with whether he may have fallen in love with someone who is not her. He has of course. Her name is Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, and if you’re keeping any kind of historical score, she’s made up. But unfortunately the Duke of Nottingham is Essex’s best friend, so the earl and the duchess mutually renounce one another, during the course of which transaction Essex gives her a ring. It’s a special ring, a kind of Get Out of One Execution Free ring that Elizabeth had given him, so I’m really not sure why he gives this to the duchess, but he does. This decision will come back to bite him in the ass, hard, by Act III.
The Cecils always get stiffed in Donizetti operas. In Maria Stuarda William Cecil’s role is basically to lurk behind Elisabetta’s shoulder and whisper “kill….” and here Robert Cecil’s role is essentially to do the same, although in this version he’s rather more thuggish than he was in real life – he’s got one of those “I will fuck up your shit just for fun” ponytails, and in Act III he and James VI of Scotland beat and kick the imprisoned Essex to a bloody pulp. If you are wondering what James was doing in England in 1601 drop-kicking earls, you are not alone. But anyway. Cecil and James are thick as thieves in this production – which in some ways is not actually too far from the truth – and the impression this version of the opera conveys is that the whole sad state of affairs that culminates in Essex’s execution (that ring? it doesn’t reach the queen in time – long story) is engineered by these two in order to hasten James’s accession.
About James, who did in fact become James I of England in 1603. Remember the “cherub” character in the Claus Guth production of Le Nozze di Figaro? How he would just kind of wander about and cause trouble, silently? Well, James is this opera’s Cherub. He’s not in the libretto. This is a silent role. He’s a young man with a suit and messy obnoxious teenager hair who sometimes snuggles up to Elizabeth and sometimes restrains her, but whose goal is clearly to make a sleazy deal with Cecil that will get him the throne. We see him sprawled in a chair and bored, chewing – slobbering on, really – a necklace during Essex’s aria of introspection before he goes to his execution. Sprawling, obnoxious, bored James is kind of a nice touch, actually. And it fits very neatly with the general concept of the production.
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