Monday, April 18, 2016

Douglas Messerli| "Scarf and Ring" (on Donizetti's Roberto Devereux)


scarf and ring
by Douglas Messerli

Salvatore Cammerano, based in François Ancelot’s play Elisabeth d’Angleterre (libretto), Gaetano Donizetti (composer) Roberto Devereux / The Metropolitan Opera HD Live performance, Saturday 16, 2016

Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux begins in medias ras in the 69th year of Queen Elizabeth’s illustrious reign. She has aged obviously, still regal in her royal costumes, but frail and quite fragile, in part because her closest consort, and the one man whom this virgin queen loved, Robert Devereux, has been long off in Ireland fighting for England. Walter Raleigh and other lords, however, believe him to be guilty of treason, and are hounding her to bring him home in order for them to try him. 
       Elizabeth (the powerfully radiant American singer Sondra Radvanovsky) is uncertain of his guilt, but is, more importantly, concerned about his continued love; she is willing to forgive him if only he will confess his former love has remained intact. 
       Yet we know that Robert (Matthew Polenzani) is, in fact, in love with Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham (Elina Garanča), the Queen’s closest lady-in-waiting and the wife of Robert’s dear friend, the Duke of Nottingham (Mariusz Kwiecien). We know this from earliest scene, wherein Sarah suffers in her sighs, the chorus commenting on her obvious depression.
     So the central quartet is established, they who will be the center of not only the audience’s attention but the entire royal court (the always impeccable met chorus).
       The plot of Donizetti’s dramatic work is absolutely straight-forward—except for our understanding of what Robert and Sarah’s relationship has really consisted—as, despite the queen’s loving implorations, Robert will continues to deny he loves anyone. The queen, in anger, orders the trial to continue.
       Meanwhile, the two ardent friends—another homoerotic operatic pairing—meet again, sharing their love and caring, Nottingham insisting that he will attempt to defend him against the others.
       Yet, Robert still dares to meet with Sarah, she exchanging a blue scarf (which, incidentally, Nottingham has noticed her tearfully embroidering), he offering her the ring which Elizabeth has awarded him out of love—the two objects which will later convict them of wrongdoing. The scarf and ring, in fact, seem to almost unify the opera as objects which, meaning so much for the original lovers, indicate the illicit lovers’ disregard of their earlier commitments, and present proof of the Queen’s sexual rivalry and Nottingham’s cuckoldry. 
       These pieces of evidence end in Robert’s death by beheading, Elizabeth’s death soon after, and, ultimately, Sarah and Nottingham’s shame. 
       Yet, it appears that despite Robert’s and Sarah’s love, dating before her arranged marriage (by Queen) to Nottingham, that the couple remained chaste, so can only wonder why didn’t they both attempt to make their true relationship more apparent, explaining to Queen and husband what the truth actually was. Of course, Elizabeth might have not been any more pleased by the truth, nor Nottingham able to accept that his wife was so loved by his dearest friend, but perhaps they both might have been more forgiving. But truth in Donizetti’s somewhat simple-minded work does not truly seem to matter.  The real truths lie only in the hearts of all those involved, where no one in this powerful opera is truly innocent. Everyone in this opera loved each other too much perhaps to get to the truth.
       What is most important about this opera is the music and, in particular, the singing of its major figures. This production—despite the wonderful Beverly Sills version he had seen decades before at the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.—was as marvelous as any production of Roberto Devereux one might possibly have imagined. The wonderfully simple, yet elegant, set and production by Sir David McVicar seemed in perfect alignment with the truly specular singing of all the leads, particularly, Radvanovsky, who this season has performed all of Donizetti’s British queens, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and now Elizabeth. As she declared in an intermission interview, she will surely be performing Elizabeth and the others long into the future. 
       But this opera, so centered on its quartet, needs strong singers in all of the roles, which this production thoroughly offered up. The ending applause of the Metropolitan Opera theater-goers was long and genuinely expressive: this standing ovation by nearly everyone in the house was most certainly deserved, and I am certain than Howard and I will never again see such a perfect production of this Donizetti masterwork. Bel Canto has never appeared so crystalline and pure, each of these generationally connected singers working closely with one another to create their often awe-inspiring performances.

Los Angeles, April 17, 2016

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