Don’t think that the movies have exclusive title to making bio-pics. Opera has been at it for years. Donizetti set a brilliant example in 1837 with “Roberto Devereux,” third in a trio of works about the Tudor monarchy. I am not a big fan of old fashioned operas, but “Roberto Devereux,”’ soars with lyrical music and breathtaking voices. Why he entitled it “Roberto Devereux” Rather than Elizabeth I will never know. Is it a guy thing?
Elizabeth I (Angela Meade), reigned for 44 years. Childless, she was referred to as the virgin queen, but rumors of romances and love affairs swirled around her. It seems clear now that as a teenager she was sexually abused by her guardian, which many have posited as the reason her many offers of marriage were brushed aside. It is clear that in her forties she took a fancy to Roberto Devereux, the Earl of Essex (Ramon Vargas), 22 years her junior with less than stellar credentials. Devereux was sent off to do battle in Ireland where he did not conduct himself admirably. He was brought back to England and put to death for treason. That is the true bio part of this story.
Where fiction and the opera comes in is this: Elizabeth stalls the execution as she is certain that Devereux’s heart has been hijacked by another. Wildly jealous, yet passionately wanting him back, she confides in Sara, Duchess of Nottingham (Ashley Dixon). Elizabeth has arranged for Sara to marry the Duke of Nottingham, not realizing that Sara is the other woman. It gets complicated. And it gets passionate, perfect fodder for soprano Angela Meade’s robust bel canto. There is a ring she had given to Devereux which has ended up in Sara’s hands. There is also a scarf Sara has been embroidering which ends up wrapped around Roberto’s neck when he is brought to the Tower of London. You can guess how her husband, the Duke of Nottingham, feels about that one!
Scenery Designer Benoit Dugardyn’s set, modeled after the Old Globe Theatre, frames the action in Elizabethan grace., the chorus moves through the stalls with subtly modern style choreographed by Nicola Bowie. At various points a large 16th century map descends, reminding us of Elizabeth’s world. The story may be old fashioned. Surely the scarf and the ring are a bit much, but the passion is real and the music divine.
At a movie or on television I am always frustrated by the phrase, “based on a true story,” followed by the disclaimer, no character is a real person. Guys, you cannot have it both ways. But I’m happy to cut Donizetti some slack. The almost three-hour production slides easily by, afloat on a lyrical score under the baton of Eun Sun Kim, Music Director of the San Francisco Opera appointee. “Robert Devereux” is a worthwhile reminder of a style from the past refreshed by a breadth from the present.