Parlando: The COC Blog

4/14/2014

10 Things to Know About Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux

By Nikita Gourski, Development Communications Officer

10 things about Roberto Devereux

This April, Donizetti's 'Tudor Trilogy' comes to an end with the COC premiere of Roberto Devereux. Here are ten key things you may want to know before you head to your seat!

1) Royal Intrigues
In the opera, a cloud of suspicion hangs over the Queen’s beloved Roberto Devereux, who has been accused of treason by members of Parliament. Elisabetta (Elizabeth I) doesn’t believe the charges, but she soon learns that Devereux might have betrayed her in another, more personal way, by falling in love with Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham. As Devereux’s life hangs in the balance, the Queen must navigate between her obligations as monarch and her all-too-human emotions as a woman in love.

2) A prima donna role
Roberto Devereux (1837) is the final instalment in Gaetano Donizetti’s “Tudor Trilogy” which also includes Anna Bolena (1830) and Maria Stuarda (1835). Central to each of these operas is a soprano role which stretches the singer to the limits of her technical and dramatic capabilities. It’s generally agreed that the role of Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux represents the summit of these prima donna (principal female) roles with regards to difficulty.

3) The best of bel canto
Bel canto (literally, “beautiful singing”) is a term usually applied to early 19th-century Italian operas with a highly exhibitionist style of singing. Though some bel canto operas seem to privilege vocal showmanship at the expense of storytelling and characterization, in Roberto Devereux the brilliant singing stems directly from emotions related to the text and also from the influence of the words themselves – the colour of the consonants and vowels of the Italian language. This requires a huge investment of dramatic as well as vocal energy from the singer – quite the opposite of the stereotypical view of the prettily chirping bel canto “nightingale.” Hear the music in our listening guide.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena
Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena in a photo for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

4) The Return of Sondra Radvanovsky
One of the world’s best sopranos, Sondra Radvanovsky returns to the COC after her stunning debut with the company (Aida, 2010), to sing the role of Elisabetta for the very first time in her career. She has also been engaged by the Met to perform the role. 

Ms Radvanovsky “sings with unflinching honesty and uncommon intensity…The New York Times

5) Triple Crown
With her role debut at the COC, Sondra Radvanovsky will have performed all three Donizetti queens, a significant achievement. Famously, the great American soprano Beverly Sills, who also accomplished the triple crown in the 1970s, reputedly said the difficulty of singing all three roles may have shortened her career by at least four years.

6) COC Premiere
Roberto Devereux has never been seen at the Canadian Opera Company, and this premiere offers Toronto a unique opportunity to experience this powerful drama of show-stopping vocal fireworks and intense emotions.

Roberto Devereux

7) Elizabethan-inspired production
This production from Dallas Opera, directed by Stephen Lawless, takes its inspiration from the powerful personality of Queen Elizabeth I, and adopts a theatrical style that was popular during her reign. Within this historical framework, the creative team found inspiration in one of the most famous Elizabethan playhouses, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

8) Staging the Queen’s Biography

The production makes a number of references to significant moments in Queen Elizabeth’s life: three large display cases appear at the top of the overture, each containing an actor to represent an aspect of Elizabeth’s difficult childhood, including Henry VIII (Elizabeth’s father), Anne Boleyn (Elizabeth’s mother), as well as a young Elizabeth. At the end of the overture, models of warships sail onto the front of the stage, depicting the greatest naval victory of Elizabeth’s reign: repelling the vast Spanish Armada.

9) Elizabethan costumes
Designer Ingeborg Bernerth’s costumes are generally period-specific and reflect the era in which Roberto Devereux has been set, though some pieces have been modernized (the men’s costumes in particular). Queen Elizabeth was the first monarch to take an interest in fashion and its effect on status and societal perceptions. Her rule was a prosperous one and fashions were correspondingly luxurious and elaborate, often embellished and exaggerated.

10) What to Listen For
Get the musical highlights with our listening guide here. For a quick preview, visit our listening guide.

 

Photo: (top) (l – r) Scott Quinn as Lord Cecil, Hasmik Papian as Elisabetta, Andrew Oakden as Sir Gualtiero Raleigh, David Kempster as Duke of Nottingham and Stephen Costello as Roberto Devereux in the Dallas Opera production of Roberto Devereux, 2009. Photo by Karen Almond; (middle) Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena in a promotional photo for the Chicago Lyric Opera. Photo by Cade Martin; (bottom) Stephen Costello as Roberto Devereux and Hasmik Papian as Elisabetta in the Dallas Opera production of Roberto Devereux, 2009. Photo by Karen Almond.

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4/11/2014

Elizabeth I — The Role of a Lifetime

Helen Mirren, Elizabeth I, Cate Blanchett

Queen Elizabeth I is one of history's most dramatized monarchs. Her lasting legacy, and fascinating personal life, has inspired countless works for the stage, page and screen. From epic historical dramas to irreverent comedies and even sci-fi, many notable performers have made the character of the Virgin Queen their own.

When Sondra Radvanovsky makes her role debut as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux on April 25, she'll add her name to that list! To celebrate this iconic role, we've narrowed down a selection of our favourite on-screen Elizabeths through the years.

Judi Dench - Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Legendary British actress Judi Dench holds the record for giving the second-shortest performance in history to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She was only in the film for eight minutes, but they were memorable ones! Making the most of her screen time, Dench captured the monarch's acerbic wit and showcased the glorious Elizabethan fashion. How could anyone forget her opulent peacock gown?


Cate Blanchett - Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Judi Dench wasn't the only actress nominated that year for playing Elizabeth I. Cate Blanchett earned wide acclaim and was nominated for Best Actress for playing the title role in Elizabeth. The dramatic biopic captured the terror of Mary I's bloody reign and the uncertainty of Elizabeth's early years on the throne. Blanchett reprised the role in 2007, as a slightly older and self-assured monarch at the height of her power.


Helen Mirren - Elizabeth I (2005)

It is a rare accomplishment for an actress to play both Queen Elizabeths in her career, so we had to include Helen Mirren on this list. This two-part HBO mini-series shows an aging Elizabeth navigating political powerplays, assassination attempts and the threat of invasion. Behind closed doors, she relies on the friendship and advice of her first love, Robert Dudley (Jeremy Irons), while beginning a flirtation with his dashing, yet hot-headed, step-son Robert Devereux (Hugh Dancy).


Bette Davis - The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Virgin Queen (1955)

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex also depicted the stormy and ultimately tragic relationship between Elizabeth and Robert Devereux. As Elizabeth I, Bette Davis led a cast of Hollywood legends including the ultimate swashbuckler Errol Flynn as Essex and Olivia de Havilland as Lady Penelope Gray. Like Cate Blanchett, Davis returned to the role for The Virgin Queen, about Elizabeth's later relationship with Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd). She was so committed to this role that she even shaved her head to achieve an authentic Elizabethan hairline.


Miranda Richardson - Blackadder II (1986)

Not every portrayal of Elizabeth has been as serious as the baity roles above. Miranda Richardson's "Queenie" in the the second season of the much-loved British comedy Blackadder isn't anything like the Elizabeth we've come to know through history. She's silly, petulant and if you get on her bad side, watch out for your neck!


Doctor Who (2013)

And last, but not least, the character of Elizabeth I has even crossed over into sci-fi! Everyone's favourite Time Lord became quite close with the queen during his journeys through the universe.

 

Who do you think played Elizabeth I best? Let us know in the comments!

 

Banner photo credits: Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I; Queen Elizabeth I portrait; Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth.

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4/8/2014

Roberto Devereux Listening Guide

By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager

Stephen Costello as Roberto Devereux and Hasmik Papian as Elisabetta in Dallas Opera’s production of Roberto Devereux, 2009. Photo: Karen Almond

Introduction

Roberto Devereux is the final instalment in Gaetano Donizetti’s “Tudor Trilogy” which also includes Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda. Central to each of these operas is a soprano role which stretches the singer to the limits of her technical and dramatic capabilities. It’s generally agreed that the role of Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux represents the summit of these prima donna (principal female) roles with regards to difficulty.

What makes it challenging is the equal emphasis Donizetti places on both virtuosic vocal and histrionic demands. It is common to dismiss bel canto (literally, “beautiful singing”) opera of the early 19th century as being tied to conservative musical formulas. For example, the operas of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and those of the first half of Verdi’s career, employed the two-part aria, whose first section (often a slower cavatina) was succeeded by a more rapid cabaletta to demonstrate a marked change in emotion. However, Roberto Devereux comes from late in Donizetti’s career by which time his inspiration emerged more from the text, allowing him to break free of the constraints of any formulaic notion of melodic development.

For the character of Elisabetta especially, this approach yielded opportunities for brilliant singing which stems directly from emotions related to the text and also from the influence of the words themselves – the colour of the consonants and vowels of the Italian language. This requires a huge investment of dramatic as well as vocal energy from the singer – quite the opposite of the stereotypical view of the prettily-chirping bel canto “nightingale.”

Musical Excerpt #1: Act I, Scene i: Aria: “L’amor suo mi fe beata” (“His love was a blessing to me”)

Connection to the Story
Queen Elisabetta enters and greets Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, not realizing that Sara is her rival for the affections of Roberto, Earl of Essex. Elisabetta confesses to Sara that life without Roberto’s love is not worth living, a revelation that makes Sara deeply uneasy.

Musical Significance
This is Elisabetta’s aria di sortita (entrance aria) which from the start sets out her dual character as Queen and lover. It is written in the traditional cavatina (slower section)/cabaletta (quicker, more decorated section) form, which is one of the building blocks of bel canto opera. This excerpt begins with the cavatina in which the expressive vocal line floats above a very spare accompaniment. This too is characteristic of bel canto vocal writing: the voice is front and centre allowing the singer the freedom to shape the vocal line in a very personal way by speeding up and slowing down the overall tempo (called rubato); changing dynamics (soft to loud) and adding ornaments such as trills (rapid oscillations between two adjacent notes) and interpolated high notes.

Even though Elisabetta’s opening cavatina begins as a beautiful, woodwind-accompanied declaration of love for Roberto, Donizetti reveals her nearly pathological fear of betrayal at 0:47 with sudden, threatening repetitions of the words “Ah! se fui, se fui tradita” (“Ah! if I have been betrayed”) and then subsequently reinforces these emotions with sets of overblown trills (listen at 1:22) at “le delizie della vita” (“the pleasures of life”).

As is typical with this aria form, the cavatina is delineated from the cabaletta with a short interjection by another character, usually a comprimario (supporting role). So, at 2:53 we hear Cecil announce that Roberto has been accused of treason which, given her strong feelings, inspires more outward vocal display in Elisabetta’s emotional cabaletta. It begins at 4:07 – listen how the vocal line becomes more agitated than in the cavatina. This is achieved with the addition of coloratura (fast, scale-like passages) which appropriately descends into the soprano’s lower register on the words “i tuoi nemici, ah! nella polve innanzi a te” (“your enemies will fall, in the dust before you”) and, an overall, more insistent tempo.

Musical Excerpt #2: Act I, Scene i, Duet: “Un lampo, un lampo orribile...” (“A flash, a terrible flash of lightning…”)

Connection to Story
Elisabetta speaks to Roberto of the past, when their love was like a dream. But then she begins to question him about his intentions. Roberto mistakenly assumes the Queen knows that he has fallen in love with Sara and then tries to cover his lapse. Elisabetta’s anger is aroused and, dissembling, she offers to lead his bride to the altar if he would only reveal her name.

Musical Significance
This excerpt is universally acclaimed as one of the highpoints in the score. It is in fact a “double duet:” the more tender opening section centres around Elisabetta’s reminiscences of happier days with Roberto, whereas the contrasting bravura cabaletta section expresses her desire for revenge once she suspects she might have a rival for his affections. The Queen’s vocal line, heard at the start, rarely settles into anything approaching a smooth melody and is instead peppered with frenzied coloratura.

Interestingly, when Roberto joins in at 0:37, rather than repeating Elisabetta’s incisive “un lampo, un lampo” (“a flash, a flash”) from the beginning of the cabaletta, he sings a different melody, which passes through a number of keys before coming back to rest in the original major key. His somewhat smoother vocal line is nevertheless restless, see-sawing back and forth as he expresses the hope that he, and not his lover Sara, might be the sole victim of the Queen’s deadly wrath.

Musical Excerpt #3: Act III, Scene ii, Aria: “Come un spirto angelico” (“Like an angelic spirit”)

Connection to the Story
In his cell in the Tower of London, Roberto expresses the wish that he live only if he is able to defend the honour of Sara and die at the hands of her husband, Nottingham.

Musical Significance
Until Act III, Roberto has been mainly showcased in duets with other characters. This excerpt represents the first section of his big, double “prison aria;” a gentle cantabile which literally means “songlike” and is just another way of referring to the slower, more free-form part of a double aria.

This is a classic bel canto melody, not oversaturated with showy vocal gymnastics, but no less demanding in its insistence on perfect legato or, in other words, the creation of an absolutely smooth singing line in which one tone is intrinsically bound to the next. The endlessly flowing melody is uninterrupted by any vocal ornament, except appropriately, in the link between its two sections (at 0:47) and at the final cadence (final “resting” spot of the tune) at 1:45.

Musical Excerpt #4: Act III, Scene iii: Cabaletta: “Quel sangue versato al cielo s’innalza” (“That spilled blood rises to heaven”)

Connection to Story
Roberto’s death is announced and Elisabetta turns on the Nottinghams; she determines that their betrayal warrants no leniency and orders them led away.

Musical Significance
This excerpt is the cabaletta portion (the quicker section following the slower, opening larghetto) of Elisabetta’s final scene, one of the most dramatic and demanding soprano assignments in the entire bel canto repertoire. Here, the Queen is pushed to the limits of sanity once she learns it is too late to save Roberto, her mental state clearly reflected in the vocal challenges thrown at the singer. Large intervals (wide leaps between one note and another) like those at 0:37 and 1:44 signify a human being reaching the breaking point, as does the sudden change of mood at 1:55 where the tempo quickens and the previously linear vocal line becomes embellished with quick coloratura runs. Unusually, at the repeat of the main theme (at 2:42), Donizetti sets a different text just as Elisabetta envisions the bloodstained block on which Roberto has died. Generally, in situations like this, the same words would be used for a repeated verse, but Donizetti’s keen desire to heighten and specify the dramatic situation demanded a change in text.

Photo: Stephen Costello as Roberto Devereux and Hasmik Papian as Elisabetta in Dallas Opera’s production of Roberto Devereux, 2009. Photo: Karen Almond

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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001