The COC’s Roberto Devereux, by Alex Nica

Art is, at its very core, an interplay between universals and particulars, between general categories and specific (re)presentations. The impact any single work of art has on any one of us depends on how this interplay enables the self to connect to some other—to that other that is constituted by the work of art in its entirety. Although this framework applies to all art, it is particularly relevant to performance art: the business of performance art, including opera, is not only to present or embody such an other—often in the form of an other universe—through actors and the mise en scène, but also to provide audience members with a way to engage that other from within the reference frame of both the shared and the private universes they inhabit. The COC’s Roberto Devereux excels precisely in this second respect: by creating mechanisms through which we, as audience members, can engage with the opera, this production sheds light on the structure of the opera as a whole.

The opening scenes of a performance are crucial because they negotiate the audience’s relationship with the action on stage while also determining the structures that will render the performance intelligible. The clever staging of this performance makes very good use of the overture: it not only presents us with a picture of Elizabeth’s entire reign, but also gives us a hint of the buzzing quality of the Renaissance in general. The spurious reference to Elizabeth’s role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream may seem a bit surprising, but this allusion to Shakespeare’s comedy serves to allay our suspicions by, in effect, coddling us with suggestions of pleasant dream visions. Remember Puck’s epilogue:

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended:

That you have but slumbered here,

While these visions did appear; (1-4)[1]

In short, it encourages us to think that the opera, despite its unmistakable generic markers, is a dream vision akin to the one it references.

The performance then moves us from comic to tragic mode in small increments. The first act opens with music that is almost wistful, which is followed by swift changes in mood. The entrance of the chorus—a communal voice expressing concern for someone’s well-being—adds nuance to the experience without startling us. It is significant that the first solo voice we hear is the mezzo soprano’s (generally speaking, a less astringent voice), professing to be sad on account of reading the story of Rosamund. Allyson McHardy, the incredibly talented mezzo soprano in Sara’s role, modulates the transition from comic to tragic mode very well. The decision to make the chorus members sit on stage was also very effective, for it added intimacy to their exchange with Sara, prompting us all to lean forward to listen to a conversation that serves a dual purpose: it demonstrates, both through Sara’s response to Rosamund and through the chorus’ response to Sara, how we ought to engage with the opera as a whole; it also ensures that we are deeply invested in the action on stage before we encounter Elizabeth’s harsher manner and sharper voice. The exchange between Elizabeth and Sara in the second scene weaves the story together by moving us directly into the central dilemma of the opera, which is created by Roberto Devereux’s character.

Unfortunately, Sondra Radvanovsky (Elizabeth) may not have been as good a choice as Allyson McHardy. While one could argue that the shrill quality of her voice and her tendency to imbalance the sound stage is in keeping with Elizabeth’s character—after all, the historical Elizabeth was known for being particularly bold and feisty—making such an allowance does not adequately account for everything I heard: either Radvanovsky’s voice is more appropriate for a Valkyrie or director Stephen Lawless pushed her to an extreme that is far too jarring. To Lawless’ credit, though, the performance “works” despite this alienating element, and it works precisely because it illuminates elements of the plot that may otherwise seem puzzling.

One puzzling feature of the opera is that Devereux does not seem to be entirely worthy of his status as hero. The rapport we develop with the other principal characters during the opening scenes, coupled with Devereux’s conduct, creates a dilemma that the audience must then attempt to solve. When Devereux (Leonardo Capalbo) appears on stage, he behaves a bit like a bumbling fool and shows unmistakable signs of cowardice. His erratic gestures suggest a lack of control over his own conduct and over the situation that seems incommensurate with the heroic mode. Indeed, nothing in his demeanour explains the other characters’ love and care for him. However, given that Capalbo’s acting fits within the scope of what the libretto hints about Devereux, his seemingly mediocre performance—his awkward, rough manner both in his encounter with Elizabeth in the first act and in his subsequent encounters with Sara and Nottingham—may be a conscious commentary on the character he plays. But whether this two-dimensional Devereux is the result of an interesting directorial decision or of bad acting is less important than its effect: it creates a tension between the importance of Devereux’s character (whence the opera gets its name) and the image of a dumb brute whose desires and allegiances appear impenetrable even to himself.

This tension is also underscored by the contrasts that emerge on stage between Nottingham and Devereux. Nottingham (played by Russell Braun) is the paradigmatic loyal subject, loving husband, and devoted friend; he is the moral centre of the first half of the opera. Moreover, his character becomes significantly more complex as the performance unfolds. Braun’s demeanour on stage signals Nottingham’s composure, setting him apart from other characters and in direct opposition to Devereux. As his character develops, however, he becomes a perversion of his former self. The brilliant addition of a rape scene in Act 3 marks Nottingham’s transition from an ideal husband to an abusive one, just as the murder at the end of that act marks his switch from friend to foe. What is interesting about Braun’s portrayal of Nottingham in these later scenes is that, through his sharp, perfectly-timed movements, he manages to convey an awareness not only of his own actions but of the situation in general. Indeed, he appears to be the only character who understands the extent to which the lives touched by Devereux unravel. His final utterance—“I wanted blood and got it”—contrasts the desperate flutter we see on stage regarding the symbolic exchange of the ring and shows a level of boldness and defiance that we might have expected to find in Devereux.

The surprising distribution of personality traits amongst the main characters defines the dilemma at the centre of the opera. Devereux’s simple-mindedness and his cowardice leaves a void that becomes the nucleus of the opera: he is the focal point at which Elizabeth’s, Sara’s, and Nottingham’s lives meet and the vehicle through which they become undone. Although the opera is decidedly a tragedy, it is not so on account of Devereux’s death, for, given his many shortcomings, his death instils neither pity nor fear.[2] The scenes I describe above ensure that the audience becomes far more invested in those whose lives are intertwined with Devereux’s rather than in his own demise. We thus find ourselves at the end of the performance with a Nottingham who has become both rapist and murderer precisely because he realizes there are no good alternatives to committing these atrocious acts, with a raving queen who appears to abdicate her throne, and with a Sara who, unlike in the opening scene, is so very distraught that she has gone completely silent. The ending constitutes an aporia: it is the moment at which we are forced to parse the tangled mess of love and friendship and to consider how we have arrived at this impasse. If we leave the theatre stunned and profoundly disturbed by what has happened on stage, it is because the performance succeeded in instilling both pity and fear in us on account of the characters whose lives are bound up with Devereux’s, and because it has done so in ways that are both clever and powerful.

[1] Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Norton Shakespeare. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jeane E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman Maus. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. 895.

[2]    See Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. George Whalley. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1997. 1452b32-1453a10 and 1454a10-25.