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Donizetti - Roberto Devereux
Elisabetta, Queen of England - Nelly Miricioiu
Roberto Devereux, Earl of Essex - José Bros
Sara Duchess of Nottingham - Sonia Ganassi
The Duke of Nottingham - Roberto Frontali
Gualtiero - Graeme Broadbent
Cecil - Robin Leggate
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus & Orchestra Maurizio Benini, conductor

Opera Rara OR24

This live recording from Covent Garden (July 2002) is set to give enormous satisfaction to listeners at home, as it clearly did at the Royal Opera House for those present, whose applause punctuates the action.

The hero of it all is Donizetti, producing against all the odds a popular and critical triumph in 1837 (bereavements and distress made it the blackest year of his life). It had only a short-lived success, just six performances because two of the stars succumbed to illness.

I was amazed by the sheer musical quality, the melodies and accompaniments apt for the scenes in the cliff-hanger story of the hapless Earl of Essex (the same portrayed in Britten's Gloriana) caught in an operatic love quadrangle between his Queen and lover, his friend's wife; the classic line-up of doomed tenor, soprano, mezzo, and baritone, the last of them contriving to delay the chance of reprieve until just too late.

The thick book has 170 glossy illustrated pages with historical and analytical essays in English, followed by full text in Italian and English. Donizetti's method is characterised as based 'upon speech rhythms, inflections and emphases', legato melodic lines 'suddenly divided into a succession of mini-phrases' (Jeremy Commons). This helps to explain why Janet Baker recently chose the eponymous Maria Stuarda in another of Donizetti's historical operas about Tudor court life as her favourite role of all, and also why I remained concerned for the Earl of Essex's predictable fate right until the end.

It is all gratefully 'singable'. The standard of singing is uniformly high and leaves no doubt about the viability of this opera, though whether it would gain a great deal from full staging and the ministrations of modern directors is questionable. It can be enjoyed on various levels, the succession of recitative, arioso and fully developed sensual melodies admitting no longeurs, a tale of intrigue and conflict succinctly told. The presentation is supported by exhaustive research and a magnificent collection of illustrations of early exponents of the roles, and of this cast at rehearsal.

Despite my general bias towards opera DVDs of staged performances, and pleasure taken recently in the absurdities of Rossini's more forgiving Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra as portrayed in Turin 1985 ( I had dubbed it 'La Clemenza di Elisabetta'), this presentation encourages far more concentrated attention to the music itself and respect for the composer.

No critique of the individual singers here; they were all splendid on what must have been a great night. The chorus and orchestra are on great form and are recorded vividly and in proper balance. I admired the conducting of Maurizio Benini, as we had done in Covent Garden's current Luisa Miller, and am pleased to endorse the generally favourable responses to Opera Rara's latest excursion into neglected operas of their chosen period, a credit to Peter Moores, Patric Schmid and all concerned.


© Peter Grahame Woolf