Elizabeth I has a presence in all three of Donizetti’s Tudor operas. ‘Maria Stuarda’ depicts the great conflict of Queen Elizabeth I with her half sister, Mary Stuart, culminating in a confrontation and the subsequent execution of Mary. It imagined a love rivalry between the Queens over the affections of Robert, Earl of Leicester (the actual godfather of Roberto Devereux). ‘Anna Bolena’ examines the demise of Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn at the order of her father Henry VIII.
‘Roberto Devereux’ is the final installment of Melbourne Opera’s Tudor trilogy. It is about the end of days of the chief protagonists. Passion, will and power collide when personalities are too closely matched. This opera opens the floodgates for the devastating forces of jealousy and pride to take their toll.
Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen claims to be married to her country only. Nonetheless, she enjoys many flirtatious relationships with real men. The relationship with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex existed. Even though he was some thirty years her junior he became her favourite soon after his entry into the court. It is a fact that he was extremely disliked by many of her closest advisors, but his relationship with Nottingham’s wife is a fiction. Romantic, impulsive, daring and ambitious – Robert’s real execution was a result of treasonous behavior “conspiring and imagining at London, . . . to depose and slay the Queen, and to subvert the Government.” (according to his indictment in 1601).
Elizabeth would have been 66 years old at the time when the opera is set. She had been Queen for some 41 years. She was the first and last unmarried woman ever to sit on the throne of England sparking a sexual revolution in the way the court was run. She had to dominate some of the countries finest minds. She recruited her chief advisors exceptionally well and
she played the rest of court against each other. Competition among her favourites was fierce. Elizabeth dealt with them like individual lovers, favouring and spurning them seemingly to whim but with hidden political reasoning. This other world of the court is depicted here by the character Cecil, her chief advisor and Raleigh, who enjoyed her indulgence and would gladly see Robert out of the way.
Robert Devereux was her last and greatest love. He may have been the only man whose ambition she failed to convert to serve her own glory. This opera imagines an emotional rather than political betrayal by Robert as the final undoing of them both. In reality she died several years later and was Queen to the end of her life. Robert was the final man to be beheaded in the Tower of London. Rumour had it that this was as much to do with his bursting into the Queen’s rooms, finding her devoid of wig and make-up, seeing her partially bald head, aged and pock marked complexion and sunken cheeks (which she daily she had stuffed with wads of fabric to keep her looking plump cheeked and youthful) as his plans to overthrow her.
It has been a great pleasure to direct this Tudor trilogy. These operas provide exceptional portrayals of powerful women. I have found directing these wonderfully dramatic works very like directing plays and am thrilled to have been able to work with such great singing actors. We have deliberately kept the sets quite stylised to focus on the dramatic action first and foremost, with the sumptuous costumes, so kindly provided by Opera Australia, helping to anchor the productions in period.