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A guide to Roberto Devereux

18 January 2019
Elizabeth stands, one hand on hip and one on her chin, contemplating. Several men and women dressed in grey stand in the distance.

Our Spring 2019 Season sees the first revival of our critically acclaimed production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux.

Set in Elizabethan England, 1601 and based upon a powerful French tragedy, Elisabeth d’Angleterre by Jacques-Arsene-Francois Ancelot, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux ranks as one of the composer’s supreme achievements. First performed two years after Maria Stuarda and Lucia di LammermoorRoberto Devereux shows Donizetti at the height of his musical and dramatic powers. As one of the critics of the day wrote:

The canvas of the drama is everywhere interesting, concise and clear.
The first act is filled with suspense; the second with terror; the third is most moving

The explosive operatic drama of unrequited love, forbidden happiness, jealousy, betrayal and revenge was inspired by a historical incident — the execution for treason of Roberto Devereux, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth I— but, as in many works of the time, history is used merely as a springboard from which the operatic imagination can soar. 

At the sound of the cannon shot, Queen Elizabeth I regrets condemning her lover, Roberto Devereux to death and spirals down a self-destructive path.

Queen Elizabeth I may rule the world but she does not rule her own heart. In order to protect her own reputation, Elizabeth (Elisabetta) has sent her beloved Roberto Devereux, the Earl of Essex, on a military mission to Ireland, where he signs a peace treaty with the Irish rebels, disobeying the Queen’s orders. In his absence her advisors, who are jealous of his favourable position with the Queen, seize the opportunity to push through a charge of treason against him in Parliament. Unknown to the Queen, however, Devereux is deeply in love with Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, who during his absence has been forced into a loveless union with his friend Nottingham. Later, Sara and Devereux admit their love for one another but acknowledge that it has no future. He entrusts her with the Queen’s ring and she gives him an embroidered scarf in return.

Laying bare the conflict between her public duties as ruler of England and her private feelings as a woman, Elizabeth resists signing Devereux’s death sentence until she is shown the scarf, on which she discovers an embroidered declaration of love. Nottingham also sees and recognises the scarf and bursts into a jealous rage. Deeply offended herself at this apparent evidence of Devereux’s infidelity, Elizabeth signs the death sentence.

Following a confrontation at home, Sara rushes over to Westminster to see the Queen. She presents her with a ring and begs for mercy on Devereux’s behalf. Culminating in a shattering finale, Elizabeth realises that Sara is her rival and tries to stop the execution.

Although the plot plays fast and loose with history, the opera carries its own brand of dramatic conviction. Musically, Roberto Devereux is filled with Donizetti’s signature florid compositional style. Donizetti’s gift for melody and understanding of the human voice are on full display, but the score goes beyond that, revealing the dramatic possibilities inherent in the best of the bel canto tradition. The combination of the singable text, well-defined motivations of the characters and the clarity and compelling momentum of the story makes Roberto Devereux a superb piece of theatre.

The dramatic intensity and the striking design of this production, designed by Madeleine Boyd, adds drama and spectacle to what is already an intense denouement.

Joyce El-Khoury takes on the extremely difficult role of Elisabetta.  Roberto Devereux also stars Barry Banks as the title character; Justina Gringyte as Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham and the Queen’s secret rival. WNO Conductor Laureate Carlo Rizzi conducts in Cardiff and Birmingham and James Southall conducts in Milton Keynes, Plymouth, Bristol, Llandudno and Southampton.

Catch our production of Roberto Devereux this Season.