Première on 19th January 2004 at the Nationaltheater
Christof Loy. Notes on the Production
"Se amor ti guida / innocente sei per me" - if love is guiding you, you are innocent in my eyes. Whatever political malefactions the disloyal Roberto Devereux may have indulged in so far, all the way to open rebellion against the queen, she would be ready to forgive him unconditionally if only he would resume his relationship with her. After decades as powerless regent of a world realm, Elisabetta at the end of her career has neither the strength nor the will to continue maintaining her position as an Iron Lady in the masculine domain of the political terrain. She loses control over her emotions - and reveals herself as hardly capable of ruling the land any more.
Even though Donizetti and his librettist Cammarano by no means tried to bring a natural portrait of the last Tudor Queen of England to the stage, they nevertheless created some highly vivid and sensitive characters in their romantic adaptation of historical fact and gossip. From the biography of England's Queen Elizabeth I, we learn that as a young woman she had held cast a spell on both her inner circle and her subjects as a whole with her attractiveness and intelligence - to this day a combination of traits regarded as a provocation by a strong woman in a society dominated by men. She may well have known quite early in the game that she would have to exert rigid discipline to defer her private needs and forego many things in life, yet little by little Elizabeth, who had sought homage as a "Virgin Queen", began appointing her lovers to political offices, which made her own political position extremely vulnerable. Finally she grew so blind that she was no longer able to assess the consequences of her increasingly emotional and barely rational decision?making.
In the scant forty-eight hours to which Donizetti and Cammarano have limited the stage action, we encounter a monarch in the form of an operatic character, who has neither herself nor her surroundings under control. The whole court has long been whispering behind their hands that this queen is quite incapable of ruling, then in the last scene they finally tell her to her face: "no queen can afford to allow herself the kind of behavior you've been indulging in". Elizabeth has long since gone into a delirium and now - almost out of a sudden whim - she abdicates.
Robert's big mistake is allowing himself to become totally dependent on this capricious woman. Her closest advisors, Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Cecil had probably also been romantically involved with the queen. Now they foster this downfall with great satisfaction taking full advantage of the private drama between Robert and the queen to further their own political interests. This way all the characters get into an irreconcilable conflict between public demonstrations of power, bourgeois morality (such as mid-19th-century audiences claimed for themselves) and the satisfaction of their personal urges. Not just the queen but also her former lover Devereux, but also his best friend Nottingham, a royalist and monarchist, and his wife Sara, who has sacrificed her love for her dream man Robert in favor of a marriage of convenience.
Like the French sources on which Roberto Devereux is based, Cammarano and Donizetti decided on a constellation of characters totally at odds with historical fact and took the core of the story about the demise of the queen's favorite Essex to set an emotion-laden Italian romantic era opera in an imaginary England. I re-invented this setting for our own time and now show the tragic entanglement of the four protagonists as a totally modern-day event. Without the decorative ballast of a superimposed past our characters move about in an end-of-days scenario: downfall and death not only determine the destiny of the title character, but also serve as a synonym for the hopeless atmosphere which has spread out over the entire nation. To avoid having to look down into the gaping abyss, the people take refuge in their predetermined workaday routines. A sense of decomposition and decay has long dominated the relationship between the social strata as well as between the sexes, even if, on the exterior the machinery of the state is kept in motion as long as possible.
As early as the end of the second act, Robert has already been irreconcilably condemned to death - all the more amazing, then, is the dramatic structure of the third act, which, apart from Sara's hopeless rescue attempt, no longer drives on the action. In this final act, there are three grand tableaux, with the Nottinghams and Robert and the Queen respectively standing at their centers. Here we discover what consequences the events of the first two acts have for the life and death of these four. This is why I also took the liberty of having the three individual scenes of this act merge from one to the next to make visible the overlaid stratification and penetrability of the chronological and spatial borders.
At the latest in these three scenes it becomes clear that there is no demarcation line between good and evil: all four protagonists share the guilt for what has happened - even if they desperately and ultimately vainly attempt to put their positive sides into the forefront. They suffer from having arrived at a point in life where they must acknowledge that their political and personal ideals can never be realized. Not only Roberto and Elisabetta stand before the ruins of their relationship, Nottingham and Sara also carry on a marriage the decayed basis of which has doomed it to failure right from the outset. Sara loves Robert, but knows beyond a doubt that she could not trust him. This is why she agreed to the marriage with the decent, but otherwise not very exciting Nottingham, deciding on a life in security instead of continuing to bind herself emotionally to the royal favorite with the dubious character. Now a series of unhappy coincidences have suddenly left Sara feeling responsible for this man's death.
Robert's swashbuckling charm are of no further avail when he comes to trial for high treason. His turbulent life, in which he has thus far been able to transform his failures into personal triumph, is suddenly condemned to an inglorious end. Nottingham's story is especially tragic: he is the only character in this quartet to date with any integrity, one who continues to cleave desperately to traditional moral values (historically he was also one of the few men around the queen who patently never had an affair with her). Then he of all people finally conspires in the murder of his closest companion - and the sudden change from friendship to naked loathing becomes even more hostile when Nottingham is forced to realize that even his ideas on a society of positive values have remained nothing more than an illusion in this corrupt state.
Finally, this realization is especially bitter and long-lasting for Elizabeth. Incapable of perceiving her own guilt in these events, she uses memory more and more as an impetus in a pathological attempt to turn the past into the present. In her final aria the queen finds herself in a state of enormous weakness, a form of unconsciousness, which forces her to give up both as sovereign and lover. When she speaks of the ghost that will pursue the others, we almost have the impression that she doesn't mean the ghost of her beloved Devereux but is rather conjuring up the spectre of her own former majesty.
Donizetti broke through the conventional boundaries of bel canto opera for this dance of death and has gone right to the foundations of his characters. He always sought to use the vocal line understood as a psychogram, so that we can really sense the way the enormous tension among the characters of the plot finds its equivalent in that vocal line: restlessness and nervousness also pulsate through the lyrical, pensive moments, slow tempi acquire an underlying uneasy quality. In the fast tempi, this uneasiness often intensifies to a violence, as if the characters were frantically trying to impede the very course of time.
This general agitation finally culminates in Elisabetta's grand cabaletta: we are almost taken by surprise when after the enormous interval jumps toward the middle of the stanza a melodic upswing becomes audible. These upswings always say something about despondency over missed opportunities and goals not reached in life. These are the moments when the actual beauty of bel canto is anything but superficial. Moments of recollection and suffering bewailing a vision of beauty that can never be turned into reality.
English translation by Donald Arthur
© Bavarian State Opera