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Joyce El-Khoury shines as Donizetti's Tudor queen in Welsh National Opera's Roberto Devereux

By , 04 March 2019

It is a thing of wonder that Roberto Devereux is one of Donizetti’s lesser known works. Whether on account of its challenging soprano part, or its fussy Tudor setting, it is rarely performed, but contains some of the composer’s most beautiful – and indeed memorable – arias and duets. Roberto Devereux is loosely based on the life of Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex who, in this opera, is caught in a love triangle between Queen Elizabeth I (styled here as Elisabetta) and Sara, the unfulfilled wife of his friend, the Duke of Nottingham. This fast-and-loose approach to Tudor history is ludicrous in parts, but makes for an entertaining slice of 19th-century melodrama.

Joyce El Khoury (Elisabetta)
© Bill Cooper

The role of Elisabetta is a notoriously difficult part for even the most seasoned of sopranos. In the hands of Joyce El-Khoury it appears both effortless and truly dazzling. Her commitment to the role is total, at points even exhausting in its emotional intensity, and her fluent coloratura and masterful control are joyous. In an otherwise strong libretto by Salvadore Cammerano, Elisabetta is – oddly – drawn rather thinly, appearing as a two-dimensional spurned lover on the page. On the stage, however, El-Khoury gives her depth and a very human sense of vulnerability. Her final aria, “Vivi, in grato, a lei accanto” delivered upon her throne as her mental and physical capacities weaken, provides a counterpoint to the anguished, vengeful queen that dominates the majority of the opera. The moment in it the where El-Khoury drops to an almost imperceptible pianissimo after two hours of muscular bel canto is one of aching fragility that elevates Elisabetta from mere cliche.

Joyce El Khoury (Elisabetta) and Barry Banks (Roberto Devereux)
© Bill Cooper

It is no slight on the rest of the cast to say that El-Khoury is the standout performer in this production: the other principals provide assured support. Biagio Pizzuti brings a rugged swagger to his interpretation of the Duke of Nottingham and there is a sweetness to Justina Gringyte’s Sara that suits her rich, tender mezzo. Barry Banks as the titular Earl is an anguished presence, whose slightly coarse vocal tone befits the role. With Carlo Rizzi at the helm, the Welsh National Opera orchestra offers a sharp, buoyant complement to the singing, delivering a witty rendering of the excerpt from God Save the Queen that appears in the overture.

Alessandro Talevi's steampunk aesthetic will not be for everyone, but it is marvellous fun. Clad in Vivienne Westwood-inspired costumes embellished with leather and metallic detail, the cast occupies a sparse but stylishly gloomy set. The centrepiece is a gigantic throne-cum-mechanical spider which makes a dramatic entrance in the second act. Less successful is the glowing tank that dominates the stage during Act 1. First home to a spider and its prey, then two butterflies when Sara and the Earl perform their duet, it offers little more than a clumsy metaphor and an irritating distraction. The WNO chorus is used to impressive effect as politicians and ladies-in-waiting under Talevi’s direction: a scene where their outstretched arms are visible behind a grimy partition as Elisabetta confronts her unrequited passion is particularly haunting.

Joyce El Khoury (Elisabetta)
© Bill Cooper

The darkness of the set becomes a little unrelenting after a while, but if the staging is gloomy, it only reflects the circumstances in which the opera was written. Donizetti was besieged by tragedy during the composition of Roberto Devereux, and wrote the majority of the score in the weeks after the arrival of a stillborn baby, soon followed by his wife’s premature death.

In this way, WNO’s production of Roberto Devereux captures the soul of this opera with precision: beneath the surface of this straightforward tale of love and heartbreak lies something much more sinister.

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“Joyce El-Khoury... both effortless and truly dazzling”
Reviewed at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff on 2 March 2019
Donizetti, Roberto Devereux
Carlo Rizzi, Conductor
Alessandro Talevi, Director
Madeleine Boyd, Set Designer, Costume Designer
Joyce El-Khoury, Elisabetta
Justina Gringytė, Sara, Duchessa di Nottingham
Barry Banks, Robert Devereux
Biagio Pizzuti, Duca di Nottingham
Robyn Lyn Evans, Lord Cecil
Wyn Pencarreg, Sir Gualtiero Raleigh
Chorus of Welsh National Opera
Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
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