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History with a Twist: Donizetti's 'Roberto Devereux'

Queen Elizabeth (soprano Carmela Remigio) tries to use her power to gain love — with  disastrous consequences.
Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Queen Elizabeth (soprano Carmela Remigio) tries to use her power to gain love — with disastrous consequences.

As the hit film The King's Speech has demonstrated, with its multiple Academy Awards, history can be a rich source of dramatic and inspiring stories. What's less clear is whether the film should be seen as genuine history — or as just a story.

Any number of critics, including some who readily acknowledge the movie's effectiveness, have pointed to aspects of the film that aren't, strictly speaking, historical. They mention key elements, such as the true extent of the king's stutter, along with less vital issues, including the extent of Winston Churchill's waistline.

The King's Speech, of course, is hardly the first Oscar-winning movie to be taken to task for historical shenanigans; Patton and Chariots of Fire also come to mind. Still, when it comes to entertainment that re-writes history, especially England's history, few movie makers can top the bar set by the world's great opera composers — and Gaetano Donizetti was one of the prime offenders.

Donizetti was particularly fascinated by Elizabethan history. He wrote three operas featuring Queen Elizabeth I in a starring role, and in all three he gave dramatic life to rumors that were already spreading back in the 1500s: that the so-called "Virgin Queen" actually had a secret and passionate love life.

In Donizetti's first two Elizabethan operas — Elizabeth at Kenilworth Castle and Maria Stuarda — the queen is romantically linked with Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. That's the same supposed relationship portrayed by Cate Blanchett and Joseph Fiennes in the 1998 Oscar-nominee Elizabeth.

In Roberto Devereux, Donizetti's final opera about Elizabeth, she's involved with the Earl of Essex. And to liven up that drama, Donizetti takes further historical liberties that might have today's critical nitpickers reaching for the smelling salts.

In the opera, Essex is eventually beheaded, and that much is historically accurate. But Donizetti's Elizabeth signs the death warrant not because Essex led a treasonous rebellion, but because he had the temerity to fall for another woman. That is, she does it in a jealous fury. Then she turns more than a little nutty and abdicates, renouncing her throne as the opera ends. Talk about playing "fast and loose" with history.

Still, there are those rumors, including one from a supposed eyewitness, who said about the aging queen: "Her delight is to sit in the dark, and sometimes with shedding tears to bewail Essex."

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Roberto Devereux in a production from the Rome Opera. The stars are soprano Carmela Remigio as Elizabeth, tenor Massimiliano Pisapia as Devereux, the Earl of Essex, and mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi as Sara, the woman whose love for Devereux brings down a queen.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.