In a romance between a queen and a man 32 years her junior, there is bound to be drama. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Donizetti found inspiration in the true story of Queen Elizabeth I of England and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, for his opera “Roberto Devereux.” LA Opera’s must-see company premiere runs through March 14 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
When “Roberto Devereux” premiered in 1837 in Naples, it was a hit. But after its production in New York in 1849, it faded into obscurity, as did many of Donizetti’s operas. Donizetti wrote about 70 operas though he only lived 50 years. His other opera with librettist Salvatore Cammarano, “Lucia de Lammermoor,” has remained part of the repertoire, along with “The Elixir of Love.”
For this production, director Stephen Lawless chose to set the action in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, to play up the dramatic aspects as well as pay tribute to the golden Elizabethan era of theater, literature and music. Each act takes place within a three-level wooden O (with a skull sitting on a red velvet cushion at the front of the stage). In Act I, we are treated to a brief scene from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and told in supertitles that it is believed Elizabeth acted in one of the Bard’s plays.
The production is not without drama of its own. Less than a week before opening night, soprano Davinia Rodriguez had to withdraw due to illness. Angela Meade stepped in as Queen Elizabeth.
Meade is the winner of the Met’s 2012 Beverly Sills Artist Award (interesting given that Sills made “Roberto Devereux” a hit on Broadway in 1970) and the 2011 Richard Tucker Award. She is recognized as one of today’s outstanding sopranos, with a talent for taking on the most demanding heroines of the challenging bel canto repertoire.
As Paul Thomason points out in the program, this Queen Elizabeth role is “one of the greatest and most thrilling soprano roles in 19th-century Italian opera.” And while Meade has performed this role in Dallas and will reprise it at the Met in September, she is not superhuman. So given the lack of time and the complexity of the role, she opted to sing with a music stand from the sidelines while choreographer Nicola Bowie acted the role in costume onstage. The audience was not disappointed. Singer and actress pulled off the feat. Meade’s voice ruled the stage from the first note.
The opera focuses on Queen Elizabeth as a betrayed lover and friend, not so much as a ruler, though there are enough hints to keep the story grounded. Donizetti’s opera is a fascinating look at the fragile woman behind the powerful icon, and LA Opera’s production is a smart and gripping interpretation.
—Julie Riggott, Culture Spot LA