Roberto Devereux, Opera by G. Donizetti
Elizabeth I of England tickled the fantasies and creative minds of many. Her statesmanship alone delivered a plethora of subjects for plays, songs, novels and operas, but it was her secret love life that inspired Gaetano Donizetti to compose Roberto Devereux. The tragic opera focuses on the life of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex and alleged lover to the queen. The work is part of Donizetti’s ‘Tudor cycle’, the others being Il castello di Kenilworth, Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena. Elisabetta, Maria and Anna, in turn, are known as ‘Donizetti’s Queens’. A piece of musical and English history comes to life on the stage of Venice’s Gran Teatro La Fenice.
Salvatore Cammarano produced the libretto to Roberto Devereux with a look to the French drama Elisabeth d’Angleterre by Jacques-François Ancelot, although Felice Romani’s own libretto Il conte d’Essex was also a clear, if unacknowledged, influence. Donizetti experienced a number of personal tragedies during the opera’s production, including the death of both his parents, two of his newly born children and his wife. Despite his private struggles, however, the composer persisted, and Roberto Devereux was premiered on 28 October 1837 at Teatro di San Carlo in Naples to massive acclaim.
The plot of Roberto Devereux concerns a low point in the Earl of Essex’s life. As a favourite of Elizabeth I, he has been serving as Governor of Ireland where he has foolishly agreed an unacceptable ceasefire with the local rebels. For this reckless act, he now awaits to be tried for treason. The situation is complicated by his old affair with Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, who is still in love with him. An embroidered scarf in Robert’s hand makes Elizabeth aware that she has a rival for the Earl’s heart – but who exactly she does not yet know. Political intrigue and betrayed feelings mix to take the drama to a tragic climax.