Great Performances @ the Met: ‘Roberto Devereux’ Almost Cruelly Grotesque

“Roberto Devereux” isn’t a pretty opera. There glorious costumes and pageantry is there as one expected from “Great Performances at the Met,” but this is an opera about an old, lonely Queen Elizabeth I of England ordering the death of the titular character, a man whom she loves. “Roberto Devereux” airs on Sunday, Aug. 28 or in New York on Sunday, Sept. 4. (Check local listings.)

First performed in 1837, this is one of Gaetano Donizetti’s (libretto by Salvadore Cammarano) three queens (the other two are “Anna Bolena” on Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and “Maria Stuarda” on Mary, Queen of Scots). The opera is loosely based on the life of Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex.

The second Earl of Essex was an ambitious general. His maternal great-grandmother Mary Boleyn was the sister of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn. Anne Boleyn was the mother of Queen Elizabeth I. His mother, Lettice Knollys married Walter Devereux, who died in 1576. His widowed mother then married his godfather and longtime favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. By 1590, Robert Devereux married Frances Walsingham, a young widow. The marriage didn’t please Queen Elizabeth. The earl’s widow would go on to marry after his execution for treason. At the time of his death Robert Devereux was 35. In 1601, Queen Elizabeth I was 67 and would die two years later in 1603 (24 March).

The action of this opera takes place during 1601 in London. The Earl of Essex is already waiting for his trial.  In Act 1, at the Great Hall of Westminster, Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham is deeply upset and weeping. She’s been reading the story of the Fair Rosamond, mistress of Henry II of England whose wife was Eleanor of Aquitaine. (Rosamond died a nun at age 30.) Sara is in love with Roberto Devereux, her husband’s best friend.

The Queen enters and tells the court that Sara’s husband, the Duke, has convinced her to see Robert who has returned from Ireland, accused of treason. The Queen reveals her love for Robert which dismays Sara. In addition, the Parliament wants the Queen to sign Robert’s death warrant, but the Queen refuses.

Roberto enters and the Queen declares her love for him. This doesn’t come off as a cool cougar, or as a quaint love that fueled, “Harold and Maude;” it’s more grotesque and Radvanovsky embraces the horrific oddity of the mismatch and Matthew Polenzani’s Roberto is brash rather than slimy. The Queen asks to be alone with Roberto promises that the ring she gave him will alway keep him safe. She will spare him should he return it to her. Roberto oddly assumes that Elizabeth knows of his clandestine love for Sara; he clearly doesn’t comprehend the madness of Elizabeth’s desperate love for him.

When Elizabeth realizes there’s another woman, besides Roberto’s actual wife, she demands to know who she is and showing her jealous rage and anguish. The Queen leaves. Roberto then confers with the Duke. The Duke is concerned about his wife and he has suspicions about the shaw she embroiders.

Later, Roberto enters Sara’s rooms at the Nottingham House. He’s angry that while he was away in Ireland, she married the Duke. Sara defends herself, saying that the Queen ordered the marriage. She sees the ring, and assumes that it is a love token from the Queen. She and Roberto decide to part, but Sara gives him the blue shawl as a token of her love.

Act 2 is again at the Great Hall at Westminster. The Queen learns the Earl has been sentenced to death. She learns that the Earl had a blue shawl that the Earl refused to give up. The Duke of Nottingham comes to plead for his friend’s life. The Queen confronts the Earl and while doing so, the Duke recognizes the shawl and feels betrayed. The Queen offers the Earl his freedom if he reveals the name behind the shawl. He refuses and in anger, she signs his death warrant.

In the final act, Sara receives Roberto’s ring with a letter from him telling her to take the ring to the Queen and beg for mercy. Her husband enters, reads the letter and fumes. He delays her and they hear the funeral march for Roberto as he is led to the Tower. The Duke leaves and instead of rushing to the Queen, Sara faints.

At the Tower of London, Roberto is not feeling so confident. He wonders why the Queen has not responded and yet he refuses to betray Sara, as if sending her the ring isn’t a big hint. The guards some for him to take him to his execution.

Back at the Great Hall of Westminster, Elizabeth wonders why Sara isn’t there to comfort her. Sara arrives, confessing that she is the rival and begging for Roberto’s life after giving the Queen the ring. Although the Queen attempts to stop the execution, it is too late. The cannon sounds, announcing Roberto’s death. The Duke enters and when asks tell the Queen that he wanted blood for his wife and best friend’s betrayal. The Queen is haunted by the headless corpse of her late love. She announces that the son of her rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, will be her successor. In private, she mourns by kissing the ring that the Earl once wore as a symbol of their love.

“Roberto Devereux” is a tragedy where the titular hero is a heel. It’s hard to sympathize with a man who has a wife (not mentioned), is in love with his best friend’s wife but is slightly clueless about exact nature of the Queen’s affection for him. The real Earl of Essex did disobey the queen and commit treason, but he didn’t have a get-out-of-jail free card in the form of a ring.

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