Wiener Staatsoper, 2014
Andriy Yurkevych, Silviu Purcarete, Edita Gruberova, Paolo Rumetz, Monika Bohinec, Celso Albelo, Peter Jelosits, Marcus Pelz, Hacik Bayvertian, Johannes Gisser
Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 17 October 2014
Donizetti's Roberto Devereux is perhaps not the strongest of the composer's trilogy of Tudor operas, but it has similar characteristics and plot devices that, with some good direction and a star performer in the principal female role, can put it up onto the same level as Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda. In Roberto Devereux the significant role is Queen Elizabeth I, and it's played here at the Vienna State Opera by Edita Gruberova. The principal role might be in experienced hands then, but the work itself still needs a stronger sense of purpose and direction than it gets in this production.
Like Donizetti's other two Tudor operas, Roberto Devereux has the same advantages of romantic intrigue in a royal and political setting that raises the stakes of jealousy, rivalry, intrigue while at the same time putting a human face on historical affairs. This particular libretto however is contrived and fairly poor at humanising the characters. It's full of romantic declarations and dire pronouncements of the 'alas, woe is me', 'heavens, I have been betrayed' type. The plot is contrived, but it's the kind of material that would nonetheless give Donizetti tremendous scope for a score of stirring passions. Musically, and in terms of how the score has been written specifically for those human elements to be expressed in the singing, Roberto Devereux can be a thrilling experience.
Dramatically however, it needs a little extra effort. Roberto Devereux's fate and sentence of death for his actions in Ireland rest on the decision of a queen who feels that she has trifled with her affections, and that he loves another. Devereux however is determined that he will die before he reveals that his secret lover is Sara, the wife of the Duke of Nottingham. The contrivance rests on whether Devereux will save himself by presenting to the Queen a ring she has promised will always permit clemency towards him, but the ring is in Sara's hands. The Duchess of Nottingham has however been locked up ever since her husband's suspicions have been confirmed, recognising a misplaced scarf belonging to her. Even if she were able to deliver the ring to the Queen, it would reveal that she is her love rival. Oh, what a bind...
As melodramatic as the plot and the arch pronouncements might be, there's good symbolic use of objects in the opera - a scarf, a ring - to forge connection between characters and instigate revelations about their inner natures. If highlighted in the direction, they can be an effective visual hook to help move things along, unless a director has other ideas. Silviu Purcarete doesn't make a big deal of these contrivances, but he doesn't appear to have much else to contribute in its place to aid the dramatic progression. Costumes are mostly stage period with Elizabeth I in her familiar traditional costume and wig. The backdrop used throughout appears to be a row of opera boxes with the royal box tier slightly askew.
It's more than adequate as a set for representation of the locations, but the problem with the direction is that there'd not much thought given to getting across the heart of the work as a drama of extreme passions and historical adventure. Most of the acting and delivery of the arias within it is fairly static. Donizetti brings good dramatic tension in his score, and it's given a strong account under the direction of Andriy Yurkevych, but on stage, too much relies on the singers to make the deficiencies of the romantic declarations in the libretto credible and the give the characters a real human dimension. To their credit, the cast are all very good, but only one or two of them manage to rise above the limitations of the direction to this level.
The strongest singing performance here is Monika Bohinec's Sara. The Duchess of Nottingham has a substantial role in terms of the range of expression that Donizetti writes for the role. Bohinec expresses all the anguish and repressed feelings in her singing, and it's a good voice, undaunted by the high coloratura. She's a good actress too, but she's not given much direction and falls back consequently on traditional operatic gestures and delivery. Her confrontation scenes with Nottingham could be much more intense, but Paolo Rumetz is too static and, although very capable in the singing of the role, rather one-note in delivery. There's not enough to spark their scene to life. Celso Abelo sings well too as Devereux. He has a fine voice and good technique that carries some weight in an aria like 'come uno spirto angelico' as he vows to take his secret to the grave, but elsewhere he's not terribly exciting.
Edita Gruberova is however in a league of her own. As far as the Vienna Staatsoper's 2014 production of Roberto Devereux goes, she's the chief attraction and everything rests on her performance. Unquestionably one of the finest singers in the world in this kind of role, Gruberova has however been there for a long time now. When I last saw her perform in person in La Straniera in Zurich last year, I thought that her voice wasn't quite as steady and sure as it once was, becoming a little piercing and forced on those challenging top notes, but Gruberova was still capable and still had the presence and personality to fill a role like that. That assessment holds true of her Elizabeth I for Vienna's Roberto Devereux.
Gruberova might no longer be in her prime and might not have much in the way of direction to work with, but she has the experience to take this role and run with it herself. She understands the character, knows how she feels and knows exactly how to pitch her response to events. There's a little retained here from Christoph Loy's production of Roberto Devereux, with Elizabeth removing her wig, divesting herself of her public face to show her human vulnerability, but it doesn't have the same impact when there isn't the same consistency to the production as a whole. Even despite that, Edita Gruberova has the star quality to make this ending as bring-the-house-down compelling as it ought to be. No allowances need be made when you have that.
The Vienna Staatsoper have an ambitious and impressive programme of pay-per-view live performances being streamed this season. See the Live Programme on their website for details.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video