Article by Warwick Thompson
It’s hard to repress a smile when the opening sinfonia to Roberto Devereux strikes up. The incongruous sound of our dear old national anthem is now more likely to herald the rather staid prospect of a royal ribbon-cutting than the spectacle of a queen of England chopping her lover’s head off. This kind of thing is usually the sticking point for people who say that they don’t like bel canto operas. Maybe it also partly lay behind Wagner’s jibe that bel canto accompaniments all sound like ‘a big guitar.’ But hang on. If you’ve ever burst out with inappropriate laughter while hearing a piece of devastating news, or cried tears of joy, you’ll appreciate that emotions can be surprisingly complicated. Maybe Donizetti was onto something profound here, even modern. After all, his comedies like L’elisir d’amore and La fille du régiment (both of which have been produced with enormous success at Opera Holland Park) are all the truer and funnier for their moments of pathos. Could it not be the case that his tragedies are emotionally sharper for their moments of jollity? I certainly think so. Roberto’s prison/execution aria (Bagnato il sen di lagrime – ‘My breast is bathed in tears’) does not signal a lapse of Donizettian judgement, but a thrilling operatic hysteria in the face of death. Or take the astonishing trio in Act 2 (Va, la morte sul capo ti pende – ‘Go, death hangs over your head’), in which the queen boils over with jealous rage, Roberto simultaneously defies her, and Nottingham is incandescent with rage at Roberto’s betrayal. Nottingham’s statement (No, l’iniquo non muoia di spada – ‘No, do not let the villain die by the sword’) plops cheerily into the passionate mêlée. To some this may seem ridiculous: to me it is – to use the term in the most positive sense – absurd. The tune suggests a fascinating aspect of Nottingham’s personality: his near-psychopathic sadism. He’s singing a chipper melody, even while imagining rivers of blood, because he’s enjoying himself. It’s sort of Quentin Tarantino avant le lettre.
It’s not surprising that Donizetti should mix tears with smiles for, despite his extraordinary lyric instinct for high drama, he himself was a particularly jovial character. In his very early career, he had great reason to be. Born into a poor family in Bergamo in 1797, his life would undoubtedly have been one of grubbing drudgery were it not for an extraordinary stroke of good luck. The second-rate composer, first-rate teacher, and all-round good egg Johann Simon Mayr had just established a music school with free places for talented local boys in Bergamo. Donizetti was part of the first intake in 1806, and quickly rose to be its undisputed star. Unsurprisingly, the school is now named after him. At the close of 1811 Mayr wrote a frivolous end-of-term farce called The Little Composer of Music to be performed by his students, and based on their characters. The hero, naturally, is Donizetti himself, and Mayr gives us an invaluable insight into how the fourteen year-old composer was then regarded. In the piece, he’s a lively lad, bubbling over with high spirits, comic inventiveness, and not a little buffo pomposity. He says at one point:
Vasta ho la mente, rapido l’ingegno, Pronta la fantasia, e nel comporre Un fulmine son io…
That is: ‘My mind is huge, my wit speedy / My fancy ready, and in composition / I’m like lightning…’ – prophetic words indeed about a composer who was to go on to write well over 60 operas, sometimes at a rate of four a year.
In his later letters, Donizetti reveals himself as a gregarious and good-humoured man who was tremendously supportive of his fellow composers: a fact which is rare enough in itself, but all the more remarkable when one considers how cut-throat and competitive the world of Italian opera was at the time. Bellini, for example, was poisonously jealous of anyone else’s success, and didn’t hesitate to say so (behind their backs, at least.) Donizetti was an able versifier too, and often turned his hand to amusing doggerel in his letters: his own libretti for the one-act comic pieces Betly and Il campanello di notte (both 1836) are generally reckoned to be sound. In Donizetti’s early career right up to the mid 1830s there was a marked, but not exclusive, preference in Italian theatres for plots which ended happily: they tended to do better at the box office, and were easier to get past the famously twitchy censors. When Donizetti tackled his first gory and tragic plot in Gabriella di Vergy (1826), an opera in which the heroine is presented the freshly butchered heart of her lover, he even wrote it as a kind of dry run. He composed it without a commission – a unique occurrence in his working life – and never expected to see it staged. (It wasn’t produced until 1869, twenty-one years after his death.) In a letter of 1828 he expresses his desire to get his teeth into more death scenes; as late as 1835 he was still crying out for more passion from his librettists – ‘I want love, without which operatic subjects are cold, violent love.’
When he found a writer who could supply him with violent love – a violence he could mix with his particular talent for happy melodies – the deepest springs of his talent were tapped. His first indisputable triumph was his thirty-fifth opera Anna Bolena (1830). It was this work which won him commissions from all the leading Italian opera houses, and established him as a household name. More importantly, perhaps, it was not until after Anna Bolena that his beloved teacher Mayr began calling him Maestro. So Donizetti had both a public which was yet to develop a taste for blood-soaked melodrama, and a personal facility for cheerful tunes: this gives us some idea of his approach to tragedy. He had honed his musical instincts in comic works and semiseria pieces, and had expanded his range as a properly tragic composer comparatively late. It was only to be expected then, that he should bring an emotional palette as varied as possible when writing a work like Roberto Devereux (1837).
His personal circumstances during composition, however, were anything but happy. His beloved wife Virginia, whom he had certainly infected with the undiagnosed venereal disease from which he himself was suffering, died after a particularly painful stillbirth in July 1837: her two previous pregnancies had already ended unhappily. On top of this, he was anxiously waiting to hear about the promised confirmation of his appointment as Director of the Royal College of Music in Naples, his present home town. The situation was a tense one for him, and in the end dragged on for a further three years. It was not until 1840 that he was eventually rejected in favour of a native Neapolitan. As if that weren’t enough, a cholera epidemic was raging through Naples too. By the end of June 1837, there were more than five hundred new cases being reported every day.
It was in this period of emotional turmoil that Roberto Devereux was composed. The opera, commissioned for the prestigious Teatro San Carlo in Naples for September, proved to be a valuable emotional safety valve – a release both for his mourning and the repression of his natural exuberance in grief. He threw himself into its composition with furious energy, and produced a score which immediately established itself on lyric stages all over the world. The story is based on the colourful relationship between Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex (1565-1601). In his youth, the proud and dashing Devereux had been one of the queen’s favourites, but after a disastrous campaign to subdue an Irish rebellion, he fell out of favour. His pride began to curdle into arrogance, and after a failed a coup d’état against the queen he was executed for treason. This fascinating historical relationship had already been freely adapted as a stage work on several occasions, but Donizetti and his librettist Salvatore Cammarano took as their principal source the French play Elisabeth d’angleterre by Jacque-Arsène-Francois Ancelot. This version adds the fictional characters of the Duke of Nottingham and his wife Sara, and exploits the legend – which, surely, is simply too operatic to be false – that Elizabeth gave Essex a ring which he was to send to her if ever she needed to be reminded of her gratitude to him.
Tudor history was meat and drink to Italian opera houses. Donizetti had already composed Il castello di Kenilworth (1829), and Maria Stuarda (1835), as well as the Anna Bolena mentioned above. Why was Tudor history so popular? Partly the answer lies in the genre itself. Opera had always relied on splashy costumes, lavish scenery and naughty nobs in a pickle, and in this sense Tudor England must have seemed like a hundred Christmases come at once for any jobbing composer. He could assume that the prima donna would appear in elaborate laces and ringlets. He could be confident that the set would include a brilliant palace and a nightmarish prison. He could give the world a head-chopping king, or a queen torn between her cares of state and her feminine instincts. But this wasn’t all, of course. The Italian censors who controlled stage works in the early 1800s were a particularly gloomy bunch of bloodhounds who barked loudly at any hint of sedition or blasphemy on stage. To show a Catholic king or queen behaving badly was tantamount to treason. But a Protestant king or queen, well, that was another matter. Since Protestants were confined to hell-fire anyway, they were fair game – hence the interest in the Tudors.
The censors proved true to form in the case of Roberto Devereux, and their quibbles put back the premiere by several weeks. But after the first night on October 28, 1837 at the Teatro San Carlo, critics were unanimous in their praise, both for the piece and the performance. ‘The music is a collection of exquisite beauties… varied and profound harmony,’ wrote one critic. ‘A remarkable diversity of expression,’ wrote another. Soon after the first night, Donizetti decided to continue his career away from the hothouse of Naples, and move to Paris. One of his first tasks was to revise Roberto Devereux for the Théâtre-Italien, the capital’s second opera company, and for this production in 1838 he added an opening sinfonia and a new Act 1 duet for Elizabetta and Roberto, both of which we will hear tonight. He also wrote a different opening romanza for Sara (the new singer had a lower voice), and composed a new two-part aria for Roberto’s prison scene: in these cases we will hear the original Italian version.
Donizetti, who could be a dispassionate critic of his own work, was pleased with Roberto. ‘Even in the midst of my grief at being alone on this earth, I sometimes derive a solace from my art. The outcome could not have been more flattering,’ he wrote in a letter after the Naples premiere. ‘It’s not for me to tell you how it went. I am more modest than a whore, and I should blush,’ he wrote with a return of his earthy vivacity in another. As ever, even at a time of bittersweet triumph, he was happy to allow the comic muse to nudge him in the ribs.
Warwick Thompson is the music critic for Metro and the London arts writer for Bloomberg.com. www.warwickthompson.com