Joyce El-Khoury as Elisabetta and Barry Banks as Roberto Devereux. Picture: Bill-Cooper.

Roberto Devereux

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


Ask anyone to name their favourite opera and it would be highly unlikely that Gaetano Donizetti’s  Roberto Devereux would be at the top of their list. 

That’s not because the work is not good, but more to do with the fact that it’s seldom staged. It lacks any notable melodies with only a few similar motifs from God Save the Queen in the overture, being its only memorable musical reference. 

However, this dark tale of jealousy and deception has, at its core, a subtle intertwined plot where honouring the secrets each of the players keep, leads to a fatal conclusion.  Queen Elizabeth I favours the young Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, but she suspects him of loving another.

Parliament is accusing him of treason and want him punished but the queen falters on granting his execution.  Devereux and the queen’s lady-in-waiting, the already married Sara, are embroiled in an affair. Worse still her husband is the Duke of Nottingham and a close friend of Robert – but when the truth is revealed, the Duke abandons both of them.

The darkness of this story is reflected in the setting and is a visual delight with its fusion of retro sci- fi and gothic imagery.  First staged in 2013, this revival features Madeleine Boyd's repeating theme of the spider and its prey.

It begins with the silhouettes of the spider and three helpless flies dropped into a glass a case, around which the women of the court crowd, dressed in their stark black costumes. In colourful contrast,The Queen powers across the stage like the bride of Frankenstein in her bee hive wigs and later resplendent high in her industrial spider throne.

Joyce El-Khoury cuts a very Lady Gaga image in a gown of scarlet festoons and her singing is as remarkable as her stage presence as the bitter, love scorned Elizabetta..

Barry Banks hardly has the stature of the heartthrob but his performance as Roberto is a more obviously attractive proposition and powerfully soars throughout. One staging error though was to have him lying down flat whilst bound to a web like series of rope ties that spanned the stage either side of him, as it was almost impossible to see him from the stalls. 

Stepping into the role of the Duke of Nottingham was Roland Wood, whose performance though strong, was more modest compared to the wicked and heartbroken extremes of the ladies. Evidence of this was Justina Gringyté as the fated Sara who from the very beginning dripped with compassion, spending much of the evening in passionate tears. Her voice resonates in a way that at times seems almost disembodied from her actual presence

Carlo Rizzi conducted Donizetti’s score with great abandon when called for and subtle moments of acapella were patiently allowed for creating a very focused, poignant and romantic production.

Director Alessandro Talevi allowed moments of domestic violence to permeate the drama that added a touch of controversial spice to the macabre ending. After committing Roberto to the gallows, the distraught queen relinquishes her throne and the horror of her act is revealed in the final image. Regretting her actions she falters under the hanging torso and severed heads with their entrails whilst the courtiers lay her feet, arms outstretched towards her as if beckoning her to the underworld.

Robert Devereux is a stark operatic excursion into almost nightmare like territory that turns the power of love, into the power of execution. 

Jeff Grant



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