Opera Profile: Donizetti’s ‘Roberto Devereux’

By David Salazar

Each of Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy operas brings its own flavor. “Anna Bolena” is lengthy but filled with tremendous external conflict while “Maria Stuarda” ramps up to a massive encounter between two Queens before becoming an intimate and internalized drama. “Roberto Devereux” brings all those elements together to create arguably the greatest of Donizetti’s dramatic operas.

Premiering on Oct. 29, 1837, the opera belongs to the composer’s later period, his music far richer and more compact than in the previous operas of the trilogy. The libretto by Salvadore Cammarano plays rather loosely with history, based mainly on François Ancelot’s “Elisabeth d’Angleterre,” among other sources.

Short Plot Summary

Roberto Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, is awaiting trial after having agreed to a ceasefire with rebels. Meanwhile, Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, is in love with Roberto and learns from Queen Elisabeth herself that she too is in love with him. Elisabeth plans to pardon him of the charge of treason if she can be sure of his loyalty, expecting the Earl to accept her love. She tells him that the ring she once gave him will always be a pledge of his safety but she turns against him upon realizing that he loves another.

Nottingham meets with Roberto and remarks that his wife has been acting strangely. Roberto then meets with Sara and admonishes her for marrying Nottingham while he was away in Ireland. She defends herself by noting that the Queen requested the marriage. She gives him a blue shawl as a token of her love and the two pledge to never see each other again. Roberto makes a plan for escape but is captured.

The Queen demands the shawl and Nottingham, seeing it when he pleads for his friend’s life, realizes the truth of his wife’s strange behavior. Elisabeth offers Roberto freedom if he reveals the name of his lover, but he remains silent.

Sara receives Roberto’s ring and a letter before being confronted by her husband, who won’t let her leave to save her beloved’s life. Roberto prepares for death and the Queen laments that she must lose someone so dear to her. Sara arrives to give the Queen the ring but it is too late. The Queen longs for death and names James VI of Scotland her successor.

Famous Musical Numbers

The opera is gem throughout with each musical selection building on the previous one. But the opera really comes down to how it develops the Queen. Her duet with Roberto is fascinating in its shift in emotions, going from tender to violent at its climax. Ditto for the latter trio. However, the final scene for the Queen is a heart-breaker, the aria “Vivi, in grato, a lei accanto” containing one of the most glorious melodies that Donizetti ever wrote. He introduces it beautifully with the flute before transforming it into something truly mesmerizing with the soprano voice. The clinching cabaletta is a showstopper as well.

Watch and Listen

Prior to Sondra Radvanovsky’s incredible turn as Elisabetta with a stellar cast that includes Elina Garanca, Matthew Polenzani, and Mariusz Kwiecien from the Met Opera, Edita Gruberova was the definitive interpreter of this opera. Here is a performance of hers from 2005. She performs with tenor Roberto Aronica, and Jeanne Piland in Munich.


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