|A Very Moving Performance|
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By Stephen Lawless
How would the Italian, Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) have viewed Queen Elizabeth the First of England (1533-1603)?
We have, in the 21st Century, become acclimatised to a specific view of “Good Queen Bess” through film (Bette Davis, Flora Robson and Cate Blanchett) and television (Glenda Jackson and Helen Mirren), not to mention countless biographies. The consensus is of a remarkable woman who advocated religious tolerance, yet, was able to guarantee the success of her Protestant faith as the official church in England. Queen Elizabeth I was a woman who bravely survived the vagaries (including the execution of her mother, Anne Boleyn) and dangers of her early life to become a major player on the world stage.
Her career saw English Arts—in particular theatre with Shakespeare and Marlowe, et al—blossom as never before. She was renowned and loved for putting her country before her personal and emotional happiness and she died, still a virgin, having presided over a Golden Age. Elizabeth the First was deeply mourned by her subjects and retains her fascination for us today.
This Anglo-centric view would have been utterly incomprehensible to an Italian of Gaetano Donizetti’s time and background, seen as an attempt to whitewash a tarnished reputation. Elizabeth would have been perceived, at best, as an equivocal character. She had irrevocably routed Catholicism (the one “true” faith) from England and was, therefore, a heretic. In the eyes of Catholics, she was illegitimate, as her father Henry VIII had never obtained an annulment from the Pope to end his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry his second wife (Elizabeth’s mother), Anne Boleyn.
This meant that other people had more secure claims upon the throne of England. Even in her own day, Elizabeth was much mocked in England and across Europe for her virgin status. Sixteenth Century attitudes viewed a woman who would not be guided by the strong hand of a husband as unnatural and highly suspect (think of “Kate” in Shakespeare’s THE TAMING OF THE SHREW). In fact, there was something positively un-godly about a woman exercising power without a husband’s restraint, and the same could be said of early 19th Century attitudes towards women.
Elizabeth’s flirtations with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and his stepson Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (among others), opened her to the charge of wantonness. She became the almost comic stereotype of the aging woman: rouged, powdered and bewigged in an attempt to hold back the ravages of time; still slave to her passions, a figure of ridicule, as well of tragedy. Her death was a cause for rejoicing throughout Catholic Europe.
This would have been the orthodoxy that Donizetti inherited about Queen Elizabeth.
When the Dallas Opera asked me if I was interested in directing Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy—Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux—using a design common to all three; I was attracted by the possibility of creating a chronicle of the life of Elizabeth along the lines of Shakespeare’s history cycles (HENRY THE FORTH and HENRY THE SIXTH) or Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. It is not as far-fetched as it may sound: the historical Boris was a contemporary of Elizabeth and had dealings with her. The operatic Boris is consciously modelled on Shakespeare’s history cycles.
This may sound strange, given that Elizabeth doesn’t appear in the first part of the trilogy, is a secondary character in the middle section and is not even given the title role in the third! Yet, individually, the operas reveal many aspects and incidents in Elizabeth’s life (as did other 19th Century operas by Rossini and other composers) and intriguing facets of her character. Together, they paint a much more complete—if historically inaccurate—portrait.
Donizetti’s skill in creating a consistent character over the course of the second and third operas (without any documentary evidence to indicate that it was deliberate) is considerable and draws together the seemingly contradictory traditions mentioned above, seamlessly. The composer creates a character that is, by turns, witty and wilful, commanding and vulnerable, politically astute and personally unsure; a woman in charge of the destiny of her country but incapable of ruling her own heart.
Intriguingly, by presenting her love in both operas as the two Roberts (Dudley, Earl of Leicester and his stepson Devereux, Earl of Essex) Donizetti creates the idea of a woman trying to recapture the earlier magic of her love for the first Robert with the much-less-worthy second. By depicting the collapse of the marriage of Elizabeth’s parents in Anna Bolena to such devastating effect, he also provides a possible motive for Elizabeth’s decision never to consent to marriage.
The title of the last opera in the trilogy may be Roberto Devereux, but, its extended final scene for Elizabeth (as William Ashbrook rightly comments is comparable to anything in Norma) provides a suitable epitaph for the character who has dominated this trilogy—Elizabeth the First of England.
British director Stephen Lawless is staging this Dallas Opera premiere.