By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager
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.
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.
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.
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.
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