Rossini wrote Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1815. At the time Italy was not a unified country, which meant there was little chance of the Neapolitan audience having heard many of his previous operas. This encouraged him to recycle several of his previously written melodies, as if he was bundling the very best of his music with which his current audience would have been unfamiliar, into one opera. The piece was presented at London’s King’s Theatre in 1818, but this current presentation by English Touring Opera constitutes the first fully staged professional production to tour the United Kingdom for two hundred years.
The opera draws from Carlo Federici’s play Il paggio di Leicester of 1814, which is itself based on Sophia Lee’s historical novel The Recess of 1785. It plays fast and loose with historical facts, but not, as director James Conway is keen to point out, with the spirit of Elizabeth I’s reign. The image of it constituting a golden age for England very much arose after the event, as in reality the Queen had to be quite ruthless as a woman who needed constantly to be on the lookout for threats to her throne. The opera tells of the Earl of Leicester returning from victory over the Scots, with Mary, Queen of Scots having died during the action. The Duke of Norfolk, who took no part in the fighting, is extremely jealous as Leicester is a favourite of Elisabetta anyway, and now with this victory appears entirely in the ascendant. When, however, Leicester presents two sons of nobility as hostages to Elisabetta, he is shocked to recognise them as Matilde, daughter of Mary, Queen of Scots who he secretly married after the battle, and her brother Enrico.
This puts Leicester in grave danger because the Queen loves him too, and he confides in Norfolk who he believes he can trust. Norfolk, however, tells Elisabetta everything, which leads to the imprisonment of Matilde, Enrico and eventually Leicester. Far from being rewarded, however, Norfolk is exiled as the Queen believes he was in league with Leicester. He therefore tries to lead a rebellion against Elisabetta by rousing the crowd, who are sympathetic towards Leicester, and attempting to free Leicester by pretending he was on his side all along. When, however, the Queen visits the prison herself, his treachery is revealed as he tries to assassinate her, with it actually being Matilde and Enrico who save her. At this, Elisabetta orders Norfolk’s execution, pardons Leicester, Matilde and Enrico, and projects the image of her that we are familiar with today as she proclaims that she will remain a virgin, married to her kingdom.
The opera is an intriguing creation that deserves to be heard a lot more, and it is interesting to see some of the structural devices that Rossini employs. The Overture, conducted here by John Andrews, is recognisable today from Il barbiere di Siviglia of 1816, but Rossini actually wrote it for Aureliano in Palmira of 1813 before rescoring it for Elisabetta and then again for Il barbiere. It is enjoyable to hear a piece that one is so familiar with, only in a slightly different guise, while the opera’s recitative is far more richly scored than in Il barbiere, where it is still supported by the harpsichord. The Finale to Act I actually follows the structure that was subsequently to become commonplace in hundreds of operettas in the second half of the nineteenth century. It begins with a celebratory atmosphere, then introduces the sinister twist and closes in a rousing manner that in no way implies that everything has been resolved. It actually finishes with the music that ends the Overture, which does not seem the most appropriate choice for what is ultimately a serious piece. Elsewhere, however, there are some extremely moving moments, not least in the Act II duet between Elisabetta and Matilde, and subsequent trio that also includes Leicester.
The opera does takes a long time to get through what it is actually saying, and if it possesses a few clumsy moments that could make parts of it seem risible, the real strength of Conway’s production is to play everything straight down the board with absolutely no sense of irony. Coupled with a set of extremely committed performances, the result is an evening that feels deep and often overwhelming. Conway’s premise for the staging is that on the other side of the throne is a prison, pointing out that during Elizabeth I’s reign there were more people in the Tower of London than her palaces, such were the measures required to keep her and her kingdom safe. Frankie Bradshaw’s set illustrates this in a variety of ways as against a backdrop covered with the crown, fleur-de-lys and red and white roses (symbolising the houses from which the Tudor dynasty arose), there is a throne with a prison-like canopy hanging over it. When Leicester is imprisoned he is chained to the back of the throne, while doors in it sometimes open suggesting that the only way to escape is through the Queen, whether that be by gaining her pardon or dispatching her.
This production keeps the chorus on the stage for the vast majority of the evening as a way of revealing how there will always be someone listening in, and ready to inform, on even the most supposedly confidential conversation. There are also a host of excellent touches that serve to highlight character. For example, when Norfolk appears before Leicester in the prison he repeatedly tells Leicester to kill him by all means, but not to doubt him. Each time he does so, however, he hands Leicester his dagger, but then takes it back rather quickly! Conway also reveals the head of Mary, Queen of Scots in a tasteful manner that does not seem so far removed from his presentation of Pompey’s head in Giulio Cesare in 2017.
The extremely committed cast is headed by Mary Plazas as Elisabetta who, with her rich and vibrant soprano, commands the stage, while also hinting at all of the monarch’s calculations and vulnerabilities. The two tenor roles are undoubtedly challenging, but Luciano Botelho as Leicester and John-Colyn Gyeantey as Norfolk acquit themselves well, while Lucy Hall and Emma Stannard produce highly pleasing sounds as Matilde and Enrico, and Joseph Doody proves an effective Guglielmo.
English Touring Opera’s Idomeneo and Macbeth will appear at the Hackney Empire on 8 and 9 March respectively. Following this, ETO will tour all three of its current productions around the United Kingdom until 1 June 2019. For full details of venues and dates visit the English Touring Opera website.