Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux proved an exciting, gripping start to the 2007 Buxton Festival. The opera is, even for Donizetti, highly charged, compact and emotionally raw. The secondary characters are faceless; the chorus interjects only with pithy, dramatic commentary; Act Two ends with an extended musical scena but, elsewhere, Donizetti boils down bel canto convention to suit his purpose.
It is the especially strong progression of character confrontations that paints the protagonists in such vivid detail. Queen Elizabeth stands at the centre: a towering example of the composer’s ability to conjure character through vocal line. Even her opening Cavatina, initially a beautiful, woodwind-brushed declaration of love, reveals an almost maniacal personality in the suddenly threatening repetitions of se fui (the mention of betrayal) and the subsequently overblown trills for Le delizie della vita. As the death of Robert is announced, Elizabeth’s recitative fragments to angular shards. The final cabaletta, full of extreme intervals, harsh tonal lurches and awesome decorations, collapses at the frenzied entry of the chorus: non regno, non vivo Elizabeth cries above the sparest two-chord string accompaniment.
Director Stephen Medcalf establishes the Queen’s presence from the outset. The eye is drawn to her signature on the stage curtain. As the curtain rises, a headless, skeletal dummy sports the royal dress. It is quickly divested of the garments and heisted into the Gods – the Queen’s image has been beheaded and hanged, immediately revealing the Overture’s God Save the Queen melody to be ironic fallacy.
The use of a dummy is notable – its suggestion of an ideal, a put-on persona is an idea that will be developed. The chorus sew in choreographed routines and pose like cowboys in a Sergio Leone film, yet are helpless in the face of tragedy; beneath the lavish costumes, characters are either fragile or bestial (Sara is the former, Nottingham the latter) while Cecil, usually a faceless walk-on, is here a blood-loving bastard, hiding behind his suave dress and status as a Lord. The boxy set too, though clean-contoured and monumental, on closer inspection reveals its dusty, decaying faade. The symmetry on stage draws the eye continually to that gloomy, candle-lit back wall. When a panel of the wall slides away to reveal an entrance, we feel that the physical here is every bit as fragile and ostensibly false as the human. The staging is effective and the strong character direction (perhaps too strong in Act Three’s first tableaux – there is no need for the suggestion of rape) allows the music to speak for itself.
The chorus on first night were on scintillating form; the orchestra well prepared and clean cut under the baton of the Festival’s Artistic Director Andrew Greenwood. Susan Bickley as Sara lit up the stage whenever she appeared – she does anguish fabulously well – while David Kempster charted the Duke of Nottingham’s descent to crazed obsession with his powerful, rounded baritone. Tenor Todd Wilander sang with ardent passion throughout, but his throat failed him in the final cabaletta. The role is perhaps too demanding at this stage in his career. (His Italian was also heavy handed.)
I was unsure at the start about Mary Plazas in the role of Elizabeth. Her diminutive figure did not dominate the stage and her fioriture in the Act One cabaletta was over-ambitious and muddled. But somewhere along the line, she found some top notes (not all of them, mind) and developed an icy chill in her soprano that did the role no harm. By the end, it was all there – the vacant eyes, the fumbling hands, the haughty yet unsteady stance and that tiny little crown, ready to fall from her wig at any moment. And how she managed to breathe the lines of Quel Sangue Versato while the chorus fumbled with her corset is anyone’s guess.
There were a few teething troubles – the pathetic little subtitle screens packed up a couple of times (could anyone sat above me see them anyway?), the tenor’s metal prison wobbled all over the place, a few candles refused to light and a couple of doors didn’t close on cue. But it was nevertheless a highly involving start to the festival. Book urgently for the remaining performances.