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So as noted, Robert Cecil and James in this production appear to be involved in a slimy little plan to speed up the latter’s succession to the throne. This is completely in keeping with the general concept of the production, which puts Elizabeth as almost an outsider in her own kingdom, as far as power is concerned. She’s a woman in a society run by men, and when she says at the end that her reign is just about over, one gets the sense that as far as these people are concerned having a man in control again is a restoration of the normal way of doing things. The opera itself implies this, of course, but this production leans on this idea in a much more self-aware way than would have occurred when the opera was originally written.
This version of the opera is set not in the 1590s or early 1600s but in the present. The stage is set up to look like a club or a lounge of some kind – dim paper on the walls, groups of leather chairs. Maybe literally an old boys’ club? The production certainly calls a lot of attention to gender divisions – in the opening scene, during the overture, the room fills with men and women in suits. The women look more like flight attendants than, say, lawyers. The crowd clumps up again by sex, men and women in separate little groups. One gets the sense from the body language of the crowd that this club or institution or whatever it is is definitely run by the dudes.
Two bike messengers arrive with what I thought was a great touch – copies of the Sun with Devereux on the front page: DEVEREUX BACK IN TOWN! SEDUCER RETURNS! (and up in the corner, “I cheated on Ozzie!” I think there are also a few other references to other real-life headliners of the British tabloids, but I don’t pay enough attention to tabloids on either side of the Atlantic to recognize them). A new edition of the newspaper has appeared by Act II – “Off with his head!” In keeping with this, the story that the Duchess of Nottingham is reading in the opening scene, when the other women ask her why she is so sad, looks like a library copy of a romance novel.
Elizabeth (Edita Gruberova) gets a series of very plain gray and powder-blue suits, and she is not followed around or attended by any kind of grand retinue. The impression that you get is that you’re meant to wonder a little bit why this operation, whatever it is, even has a queen, and what she is supposed to be doing. She gets gussied up a little more for Act III, where she gets a formal black dress. At the culmination of this act, despairing after Essex’s execution, she pulls off her head of red hair – which as it turns out is a wig, covering Elizabeth’s sparse gray real hair underneath. It’s sort of an odd moment. She’s clearly done playing politics – but the moment also suggests that she’s done because she’s lost Essex. It’s as if wielding political power requires a veneer of youth; courting young men also requires a veneer of youth; she’s done with the latter and thus also necessarily done with the former? One of the unexamined assumptions of the opera — yay nineteenth century! — is that women’s power is personal rather than political. The idea of the queen being the ruler and that simply being that does not quite compute. She can’t be a truly ‘natural’ holder of power. She’s not one of the boys. So she has to rule in a specifically womanly way, i.e. by compelling romantic devotion. And when she can no longer do that, the show is over. Again, I think this is all implied in the original opera, but this production brings the idea forward in a much more deliberate way.
The production is very coherent, in the sense that I didn’t see any touches that appeared to be weird or out of place. The one not-literal thing that plays a prominent role is a clear partition that divides the front and back halves of the stage at some points – it shrinks the area of action for Essex and the duchess’s renunciation scene at the end of Act I, and in Act III it allows you to see what is happening ‘off stage’ – i.e. Essex getting the crap kicked out of him by Cecil and James. By the end I had mentally named it the Slightly Metaphorical Barrier, because that is what it is.
On to the next thing: the awesomeness of Edita Gruberova.
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