4 October 2013
Those bed-hopping, head-chopping Tudors are everywhere this year, with new books, TV series and exhibitions attesting to this dynasty’s 500-year hold on posterity’s imagination.
Now Welsh National Opera is hitting the road with three of Donizetti’s Tudor-themed operas. Composed in the 1830s, they are about as historically meticulous as Blackadder. Yet they brim with passion as well as sensational swirls of semiquavers.
WNO’s productions of the first two, Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda, have drawn a mixed response. There will surely be little carping, however, about Alessandro Talevi’s staging of Roberto Devereux, a short but fever-pitched opera that relates (or, more often, comprehensively rewrites) the aged Elizabeth I’s doomed love for the Earl of Essex. It is similar territory to Britten’s opera Gloriana, except that Elizabeth is a monster and Devereux far less feckless. His pre-execution soliloquy is Donizetti at his pathos-laden best.
Apart from one bit of gratuitous sexual violence, and the bizarre entry of a giant metal spider, Talevi’s staging is commendably focused on the flaming confrontations between the infatuated or enraged principals. And even those two provocative moments are logical. The sexual violence comes in the epic showdown between the Duke of Nottingham (David Kempster, in top-class villainous-baritone form) and his wife Sara (Leah-Marian Jones, touching and ardent). He has discovered her affair with Devereux, and his Othello- like jealousy simply boils over.
As for the spider, the symbolic depiction of Elizabeth as a venomous black widow is creepily suggested from the start by Madeleine Boyd’s translucent designs, silhouettes and clever lighting.
It’s the two central performances, however, that make this show gripping. In the title role, the rising tenor Leonardo Capalbo belies his pint-sized, biker-boy look with singing of terrific verve and volatility — and he has the stamina to reserve his best till last.
Even better is Alexandra Deshorties as Elizabeth. Not the most luscious soprano, but she uses it so daringly that every coloratura twiddle discloses something about Elizabeth’s thwarted desire and homicidal temper. Never mind her effect on her courtiers; in the safety of the stalls, I was terrified.
The show is superbly conducted by Daniele Rustioni, an Italian who looks about 14 but already knows how to make Donizetti fizz. In his hands, even the overture, with its anachronistic but charmingly harmonised snatches of God Save the Queen, is a showstopper before the show has started.