Donizetti had obsessions. Including one with the United Kingdom? Beside Roberto Devereux, which opened the Holland Park Opera season in London on June 2 (I was there), he composed Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, Lucia di Lammermoor, Maria Stuarda and Emilia di Liverpool (which opens, you may remember ‘among the mountains near Liverpool’) not forgetting Rosamunda d’Inghilterra; that is; six Brit venues out of his seventy or so operas. Roberto was composed in 1837 when its composer was forty years of age, with another eleven years of life to go in his sad life and unique death (which I’ll come to later). The venue of the première was the San Carlo in Naples and Donizetti wrote to his publisher; “it is not for me to tell you now how it went. I am more modest than a whore: therefore I should blush. But it went very, very well. (They also called out the poet).” Ronzi di Begnis who played the part of Queen Elizabeth had a great success; and so did Majella Cullagh, the Irish soprano, at Holland Park. In fact, she triumphed. An impressive stage presence, she sang superbly, coping with the wide range and florid coloratura, her emotions and tones covering the gamut from tender to ferocious. Donizetti repaid her by giving her the best music, particularly the duets with Roberto of the title-role, a fluent and most capable tenor (the programme’s biography lists venues and appointments but, as so often, fails to tell us nationality). Yvonne Howard gave a good account, vocally and histrionically, of Sara, Duchessa di Nottingham, who is Roberto’s love (this opera grants Roberto no wife, as he had in reality). The music for the duets of Sara and Roberto are not nearly of such good quality as those of Roberto and the Queen.
There is banality sometimes in the music but the arias are good and the finale of act two is wonderful music, chorus included; once or twice Donizetti lets rip in a thrilling and passionate way. Richard Bonynge (mispelt in the programme) conducted a tidy performance that showed love and respect for the score. There are some interesting bits of scoring; woodwind introductions, dramatic use of trombone and side-drum. Our national anthem is briefly quoted in the prelude – but nobody stood up.
The season at Holland Park goes on until mid-August and the operas to be performed are: Hansel and Gretel, La Bohème, Orpheus in the Underworld, Un Ballo in Maschera and Kát’a Kabanová.
Lindsay Posner’s direction was free of ‘concept’ and tricks, thoroughly circumspect, frankly on the dull side. Adam Cooper was named as chorographer but was little in evidence. Costumes satisfactory.
It was a most enjoyable evening and the audience, graced by the presence of the conductor’s wife, Dame Joan Sutherland, responded with generous applause.
Donizetti’s death: apparently the composer was something of a sexual athlete – preferring trios to the more conventional duos; in his final mental and physical decline he indulged in onanism to such a degree that he died as a result. He might be said to have died by his own hand.
Dame Joan Sutherland and Holand Park Directors