A traitor’s trial in ‘Roberto Devereux’: The unprivate lives of Elizabeth and Essex
Photo by Cory Weaver

LOS ANGELES—Move over, Broadway’s recently opened musical adaptation of the 1960s wife-swapping movie Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, which has nothing on Los Angeles Opera’s company premiere of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Roberto Devereux about the 1600s kinky hi-jinks of Bob and Liz and Sara and Duke.

To be more specific, I’m referring to the ménage-à-quatre (to coin a phrase?) between the titular character, Roberto Devereux (aka the Earl of Essex), Queen Elizabeth, Sara (the Duchess of Nottingham), and the Duke of Nottingham in Elizabethan England.

Donizetti’s tragedia lirica (lyric tragedy) with Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto, first produced in 1837 in Naples, is loosely based on at least one play and a publication about actual historical personages. This is one of three Donizetti works depicting England’s House of Tudor, which include the Italian composer’s operas about Anne Boleyn (King Henry VIII’s doomed wife is alluded to in Roberto as she was Elizabeth’s mother) and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Angela Meade as Queen Elizabeth, pictured in a 2009 Dallas Opera production / Karen Almond

Film fans who have seen director Michael Curtiz’s 1939 The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, starring Olivia de Havilland, Bette Davis as the not-so-Virgin Queen, and Errol Flynn as the Earl of Essex, will be familiar with some of Roberto Devereux’s plot points. In the Warner Bros. Technicolor epic Our Man Flynn puts the sex into Essex as he romances the much older Queen Elizabeth I. Private’s musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, one of Hollywood’s greatest movie score composers ever, was Oscar-nominated, and he later used part of the picture’s composition in his Symphony in F-Sharp Major.

LA Opera’s season is rolling right along, despite conundrums that might cause serious setbacks to lesser opera houses. Not even the company’s loss of Plácido Domingo as general director and performer (he had been scheduled to appear as the Duke in Roberto) has broken its stride or spirit. Domingo’s precipitous fall from grace is itself the stuff great opera is made of.

On Roberto’s opening night, LA Opera was faced with another crisis when one of its female leads was unable to take the stage. With that “the-show-must-go-on!” pizzazz, before the curtain lifted Feb. 22 on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage, LA Opera CEO Christopher Koelsch announced that due to Davinia Rodríguez’s illness, which reportedly prevented her from playing Queen Elizabeth, soprano Angela Meade would replace her. Because of Ms. Meade’s late addition to the cast, as well as the extensive demands of the role, at the premiere of Roberto Devereux Meade sang Elizabeth from the side of the stage while Nicola Bowie, the production’s choreographer, acted the role in costume and makeup onstage. In subsequent performances Meade has completely assumed the stage role.

Antennas raised, I was curious how this unique arrangement would work out under the glare of the operatic medium, live. Would it look like kooky Kabuki theatre? While Ms. Bowie played the Virgin Queen center stage, Ms. Meade was visible singing on stage right standing in front of a music stand with the illuminated score. Instead of ruining the performance, this arguably enhanced the experience with a rather singular mise-en-scène. It called to mind the scenes depicting the introduction of synchronized sound to “talkies” in Singin’ in the Rain, as well as Deaf West Theatre’s use of sign language during plays and musicals (next month DWF is performing an iteration of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée at the Odyssey Theater).

With Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas in the title role as the dashing, younger nobleman and soldier, Roberto Devereux dramatizes his affair with Her Majesty, while he’d clandestinely romanced Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham (mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon plays the part until March 5 and Raehann Bryce-Davis, fresh off her portrayal of Big Stone in LA Opera’s Eurydice, assumes the role March 8-14). To further complicate the infidelities, Sara is married to Roberto’s best friend and loyal champion, the Duke of Nottingham (Quinn Kelsey in his LA Opera debut).

A traitor’s trial

To say that complications ensue is an understatement. Compounding all these entanglements, Roberto is charged with high treason due to his actions on the battlefield. It’s worth mentioning the specifics of his trial, although it forms only the background to the opera and is not given deep attention in the libretto: The Queen had sent him to lead a military expedition to subdue Catholic Ireland, one of the British gentry’s most lucrative colonies, but against her orders, Devereux signed a peace treaty with the Irish rebels. How different history might have turned out had this treaty held!

But Elizabethan England was at its imperial height and no one crossed the Queen lightly: The history students among us will recall that it was under Elizabeth that the British fleet defeated the feared Spanish Armada in 1588, with one victory turning the tide on the Spanish Empire, which never again could compete on an equal basis with the Brits. So Roberto’s betrayal took place on two levels: the personal/emotional, and the military/political.

Will the Earl of Essex end up with his head on a pike or will he escape the chopping block, at least until the final curtain?

Benoît Dugardyn’s scenic design features a clever mock battle on the high seas between the two fleets to remind us of this critical piece of Elizabethan history. The optical opulence of his scenery evokes 16th-century London. He puts his architectural background to good use, creating a set reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater (the Bard himself makes a cameo appearance onstage). The first and last scenes visually express Elizabeth’s angst, caused by having the institution of the monarchy thrust upon her. As Shakespeare observed in another meditation on monarchy, Henry IV: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”—and heavy is the heart that must bear it. Not to mention, of course, the multitude of subjects who must suffer under a royal class that inherits privilege and power to reign along with the megalomania and affluenza in the exercise of their rule.

For this production, LA Opera’s curtain looks like a gigantic picture frame, which is highly apropos, for along with spot-on makeup and wigs, German costume designer Ingeborg Bernerth’s apparel for Ms. Bowie as Her Majesty closely resembles contemporary paintings of Queen Elizabeth I. The royal raiment brings alive the court, as well as Parliament, of Elizabethan London, transporting us back in time and space, if only for three hours or so. But this production is such a magical time machine that H.G. Wells might well have envied it.

In addition to the unusual dual performance of the Mses. Meade/Bowie as Elizabeth, LA Opera audiences are treated to another rare event, as a female conductor, South Korean Eun Sun Kim, wields the baton, eliciting Donizetti’s sometimes soaring score from the LA Opera Orchestra (Louis Lohraseb conducts on March 14). In a nod to cultural authenticity, perhaps it’s on point to have an Englishman direct this production set in Britain, LA Opera veteran Stephen Lawless, who flawlessly oversees this brilliant production, notwithstanding the last-minute casting hiccup. The cast outstandingly sings and acts, with Kelsey’s Duke movingly emoting as not just a cuckold, but as someone who believes he’s been betrayed by his bestie, whose head he’d been trying to save in the corridors of Parliament.

From left, Christopher Halsted (Henry VIII), Kira Hunziker (Princess Elizabeth), and Donna Gale (Anne Boleyn) / Cory Weaver

Aside from Roberto’s musings on and depictions of its four main characters’ sexual peccadilloes, did Donizetti and Cammarano produce what we could recognize today as an anti-monarchical opera, critiquing the divine institution of monarchy itself and the authoritarian, one-person rule we see on exhibit? Perhaps that’s a stretch, for both Classical and Romantic esthetics were generally not so much anti-monarchy per se, but rather demanded that monarchs rule justly.

Still, unfortunately, this theme remains as relevant today as it was when the story was set, in the 16th century, and when first produced in 1837. Today, as some political leaders act as if they are above the law, Roberto Devereux remains a cautionary tale.

For its stellar stagecraft and affecting bel canto lyricism, I do indeed heartily recommend that opera-goers see, hear and enjoy Roberto Devereux.

Roberto Devereux is performed Thurs., Feb. 27 and March 5, and Sat., March 14 at 7:30 p.m., and Sun., March 1 and 8 at 2:00 p.m., at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For more info and tickets call (213) 972-8001 or go to the LA Opera website.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian/critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.