At his best, Donizetti is a wonderful exponent of the romanticism that emerged in early-1800s Italy, a particularly febrile period in operatic history that seems reflected in the extremes of plot and emotion he depicted on stage. Roberto Devereux, one of 70 operas penned before he died of syphilis in 1848, aged 41, is a case in point.
His murderously jealous Elizabeth I may bear scant resemblance to the actual Tudor monarch – and her deranged abdication following the execution of her beloved but unyielding Devereux even less so. But, sung by the glorious Joyce El-Khoury in this revival of Alessandro Talevi’s production for Welsh National Opera, she proves an extraordinary vehicle for the utmost torments of love and grief.
El-Khoury delivers a heart-stopping, bravura performance, all the more intense for the paradoxically exquisite bel canto and jaunty melodies through which Donizetti paints his tragedy. For the ill-fated Devereux, the opera is one long goodbye, and Barry Banks conveys it with notable pride and passion, supported by Justina Gringyte and Biagio Pizzuti in richly colourful voice as Sara and the Duke of Nottingham, respectively.
As Carlo Rizzi’s WNO chorus and orchestra bring out the nuances and high drama of the score, it’s ironic that Talevi’s nonetheless intriguing black-on-black staging should tend towards style over substance – a charge still too readily made against Donizetti himself.
He and the production team over-milk the symbolism in their unrelenting urge to present the royal court as spider’s web-cum-cage. Yet there are striking images: Madeleine Boyd’s Vivienne Westwood-esque costumes lend Elisabetta a dark, steampunk glamour, while her giant mechanical spider is a Louise Bourgeois-inspired coup de theatre.