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I get a kick out of Donizetti’s Tudors! operas mainly because I’m fairly familiar with the history they’re based on, and it’s extremely entertaining to see familiar stories tricked out in early nineteenth-century bel canto garb. The music itself is fun, definitely, but I don’t find it gripping in the same way that I do Handel or Mozart or Verdi. There are a few arias in this opera, e.g. Nottingham’s “forse in quel cor sensibile” (the one where he repeats “santa voce d’amistà” over and over AND OVER again) where I tend to get impatient.
And there are others that are enormous fun when sung well. All of Elizabeth’s – my personal favorites are “l’amor suo mi fe’ beata” in Act I and the scene in Act II where Elizabeth is threatening death and destruction, “va, la morte sul capo ti pende.” I absorbed this opera at a point in my life when I knew no Italian, and when I listened to it over the weekend, I realized that I still hear it now the way I heard it then, as music and a series of nonsense syllables, even though if I put my brain in the right position I can understand far more of what is being sung.
Gruberova is fantastic as Elizabeth. Aside from the lovely voice and technique (the control in Elizabeth’s last aria, with just a hint of Donizetti-heroine end-of-her-tether madness, is amazing), she puts as much emotion into this music as it can hold. She is terrific. The rest of the cast is not at all bad either. Jeanne Piland as Sara the Mopey Duchess doesn’t get anything really exciting to sing, but what she gets she sings well. The character isn’t what I would call interesting in terms of either the music or the drama, but it’s performed with conviction. Albert Schagidullin (Nottingham) I did not enjoy initially, but he seemed to warm up – the later ensembles that he’s in, for example the scene with Mopey Duchess at the beginning of Act III, or his Act II duet with Elizabeth, sound much better.
I found myself really appreciating the orchestral playing in this performance – it’s really sensitive to what the singers are doing and to what is happening on stage. The initial WHOMP WHOMP of the overture (if you hear it, you’ll know what I’m talking about) is a little more muted than I am used to, which really works, and the sound is very smooth and lyrical and pretty after the quote from ‘My country ’tis of thee’ ‘God save the queen.’ Haider downplays the echt-bel-canto oompah-oompah quality of the score a little, although it rears its head in unexpected places. This is music that is more interested in big spectacle than in introspection. During Roberto and the duchess’s duet at the end of Act II, for example, I found myself thinking – but shouldn’t this sound sadder? Regardless, though, the orchestral playing is on the same page, interpretively as the performances. This may not be music to get utterly absorbed in, but you get the sense that the performers are taking the emotion that’s in it seriously.
A dramatic note – there are several points in this production where Elizabeth enters before you expect, in terms of what is happening in the score. It happens in the first scene of Act I, where there is a sort of expansive fanfare-ish moment in the music that you think would coincide with her appearance but comes just later, and again in Act III, where she is on stage, silently, right before Essex’s last “guess I’m going to get the chop” aria is over. It’s like she sneaks in before you quite expect her – and given the general feel of the production, in which she’s not really part of the club despite being the queen, it works.
So. Terrific fun, if you like this sort of thing!