Elizabeth I was the subject of countless novels, plays and operas in the first half of the 19th century, the interest in her history bordering on obsession. The patriarchy needed to come to terms with a woman who escaped all its stereotypes by portraying her as a sad, lonely, spurned lover. Il castello di Kenilworth, which premiered in 1829, is the first of the many operas Donizetti wrote around the character of Elizabeth. It already belongs to the composer's maturity and, musically, it is comparable with the other works of this period. Nevertheless, it falls among his “forgotten” operas: the only modern recording was made in 1989, with Mariella Devia as Elizabeth.

Jessica Pratt (Elisabetta) © Gianfranco Rota
Jessica Pratt (Elisabetta)
© Gianfranco Rota

In this production, the Donizetti Opera Festival presents the original score, without the 1836 revisions, when Donizetti modified some of the numbers and, more importantly, re-wrote the role of Warney from tenor to baritone.

The plot revolves around the love of Elizabeth I for the Earl of Leicester, who is secretly married to Amelia Robsart who, in turn, is loved by the evil Warney, Leicester’s equerry. Elizabeth visits Kenilworth Castle, on Leicester’s estate. When she is announced, the Earl asks Warney, whom he trusts, to hide his wife by locking her up in the basement. Warney takes advantage of the situation to pursue Amelia, but she sternly refuses his advances (duet ensues). Warney vows revenge. Leicester visits Amelia in her cell; she is understandably furious, unable to interpret her husband’s behaviour. They part in anger during another beautiful duet. Amelia manages to escape and runs into the Queen. Upon discovering that she’s married to Leicester, Elizabeth is enraged and, in a third marvellous duet with Leicester, she swears vengeance against the married couple. In a last scene, Elizabeth regains composure: she forgives everybody (except Warney) and shows a monarch’s mercy.

<i>Il castello di Kenilworth</i> at the Donizetti Opera Festival © Gianfranco Rota
Il castello di Kenilworth at the Donizetti Opera Festival
© Gianfranco Rota

Ursula Patzak's costumes are beautiful, in traditional Tudor style; the set by Angelo Sala was empty, with a raked stage and carpets unrolled to represent a meadow, or as a path for the royal procession. Amelia was imprisoned in a cage with another giant one separating Elizabeth from everybody else in the finale as an obvious metaphor. The movements of the singers were stereotyped and symmetrical. Overall, the production by Maria Pilar Pérez Aspa was reminiscent of a concert performance with costumes: it was not unpleasant, but it did little to build on the musical experience.

Carmela Remigio (Amelia) and Stefan Pop (Warney) © Gianfranco Rota
Carmela Remigio (Amelia) and Stefan Pop (Warney)
© Gianfranco Rota

Musically, things were considerably better. The Orchestra Donizetti Opera, under the baton of Riccardo Frizza, gave us an idiomatic, stylish performance. The conductor managed to bring Donizetti’s score to life with elegance and emotional involvement, leading the big ensembles with authority and supporting the soloists with care.

Elizabeth has the most prominent numbers: an elaborate entrance aria announced by chorus and military fanfare and a final rondo of stratospheric coloratura. Nevertheless, Amelia’s presence on stage and her key role in the action make her a more important character. The relationship (clash) between the two women is at the centre of the drama, their confrontation in Act 2 forewarning the more dramatic one to come in Maria Stuarda six years later. Jessica Pratt was a strong, authoritative Elizabeth, with sparkling coloratura and spectacular super-high notes. The silver of her voice, however, seemed a bit tarnished in the middle-high register, as if she wasn’t on her best form. Her performance was nevertheless exhilarating, and she was cheered with great warmth. Carmela Remigio portrayed Amelia with passion; her warm, supple soprano exploring all the different emotions with confidence and style. Her performance was the most satisfying of the evening. In Act 3, Amelia sings an aria with the accompaniment of harp and glass harmonica where she reminisces about her lost love. The similarity with Lucia’s madness was striking; Remigio sang with pathos, giving an emotionally charged interpretation.

Carmela Remigio (Amelia) and Xabier Anduaga (Leicester) © Gianfranco Rota
Carmela Remigio (Amelia) and Xabier Anduaga (Leicester)
© Gianfranco Rota

Leicester is a classic Giovanni David role: very high, with extreme coloratura and high notes. Xabier Anduaga, a young tenor from the Accademia Rossiniana, seemed quite at ease in this score, flying through the difficulties of the part. His voice was powerful and pleasant; his emission, at times, a little too much in the nose. His dynamic range was also a bit limited, but it will probably improve with age and experience. Stefan Pop made a strong impression in the Iago-like character of Warney: his tenor was strong and exciting. He tended to push, which resulted in a slightly sharp pitch at times, but, overall, his performance was remarkable. Dario Russo, as Lambourne, and Federica Vitali, as Fanny, both contributed to a successful evening.

***11