Behind the Music: Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra

To refresh your memory (since it's been so long), the challenge was to find what was wrong with this program. But first, the cast of characters:

Top Left: Lella Cuberli as Elisabetta, Queen of England
Top Right: Rockwell Blake as the Duke of Norfolk
Bottom Left: Daniela Dessì as Mathilde, daughter of Mary, Queen of Scots
Bottom Right: Antonio Savastano as the Earl of Leicester

These photos are from the booklet that came with this most excellent DVD, which I highly recommend:

Blake and Dessì are without peer, without question. Blake plays the vindictive Norfolk to an elegant "T", feigning friendship when it suits him and sliding the dagger into his so-called friend (figuratively speaking) when it doesn't. I call him Evil Norfolk. His characterization is perfect (as is his singing). I've said it before - he has such natural musical sense that every note that comes out of his mouth seems natural, is imbued with intent or emotion, and he is a joy to watch.

Dessì too is a wonder, singing with such sympathetic emotion and beautiful mezzo timbre at all times. She does have that worried expression on her face pretty much throughout the entire opera, but she has a lot to worry about, so it's understandable. (Dessì is still singing leading roles today - this recording is from more than 20 years ago - a fact which astonishes me to no end.) There is an amazing extended mezzo aria at the end of Act I that is amazing.

Cuberli is also at top form, though I sometimes have to turn the volume down somewhat when she is singing as she sometimes can be a tad shrill (but not sharp). Still, she hits all the notes, has great coloratura and matches well with both Dessì and Blake. She does sometimes have a distracting habit or singing out of the side of her mouth (a little bit), which I find I can generally ignore. It isn't terrible, and it doesn't happen all the time.

Savastano - what to say? He is the weakest link (goodbye!) He has a fine lyric voice. But when he opens his mouth to sing the more highly ornamented pieces it is like a train wreck. A train wreck. The first time I watched the DVD I could hardly believe it was the same person singing, it sounded so different. His tone becomes strained and his voice completely "yell-y", which I absolutely hate in bel canto tenors, and which seems to be par for the course in about half of those singing this repertory nowadays. So, those few pieces are sort of killed by his effort. Still, his shortcomings to not make me like the video less, and I can't believe there is a better rendition out there on tape.

Moving on.

Here's the bit in question from the program:
    Deh troncate I ceppi suoi, from Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra
    Queen Elizabeth is a frequent character in bel canto operas, and this concerns her love for the Earl of Leicester. Court politics and the disfavor of the queen dictate that the Earl's recent marriage be kept a close secret, especially from her. The Earl of Norwich, in order to gain an advantage over his rival, reveals the secret. The queen's anger is fierce and Leicester is imprisoned. In this scene, Norwich is now repentant and urges a crowd to save him. Break his chains, the prison will open for you as you are armed with the power of friendship. Someone who does not feel this is truly without heart.
Adrienne correctly guessed that Norfolk is a Duke, not an Earl. Which is true. On both counts.

Do you get it?

The name of the character is Norfolk, not Norwich. The Duke of Norfolk. I even looked a bit online to make sure that there was not a member of the same family of a Duke of Norfolk that held that title. In actuality, the Earl of Norwich was a title which actually did exist in England, and the person for whom the title was originally created was a son of the Duke of Norfolk. Unfortunately, this happened after Elizabeth I died. (Granted, librettists take liberties with historic facts all the time. For instance, although Elizabeth I did fancy the Earl of Leicester, and although he did marry someone else, it wasn't the daughter of Mary Stuart because I don't think she had one (as far as I know she had only one son, James, who became King James VI of Scotland). But still.)

My question is: is the person who compiled this summary ignorant of the work as a whole (so much such that they don't even rightly know the names of the characters)? Or are they simply unable to copy a name correctly? Twice?

Part 2 of the question is a little bit trickier, and involves Norfolk's motivations that set this aria in motion. It is true that Norfolk tells the townspeople to break into the jail and free Leicester, and that Elizabeth doesn't understand men's hearts. He tells them that Leicester's only crime was love, and who can blame him for that? Here's the real story though: The whole reason Norfolk tells Elizabeth about Leicester's marriage to Mathilde is because Elizabeth favors Leicester (indeed, she loves him, though he does not know it). But Norfok is a power-hungry, and sees Leicester as a rival. Norfolk doesn't love Elizabeth - but he does want her power. He tells the secret that Leicester has revealed in confidence because then the way will be clear for him. However, it is revealed in Act II that Norfolk's words have so hurt Elizabeth that she refuses to receive him. It may be that she sees him for what he is. I think she dismisses him from the court. Norfolk is outraged. When he comes across the townspeople lamenting the imprisonment of Leicester (who is their hero because he led English troops to victory in an important battle with Scotland) he sees it as another affront, that even in prison Leicester hurts him. But then he gets an idea how to get back at Elizabeth for dismissing him so easily - incite the people to rebel and free Leicester. That'll teach her (he says). (Later he tries to kill her as well. He's a bad, bad man.) He never ever repents, his motives are completely different and disingenuous. This is never unclear.

My question is: Where did the person get the idea that Norfolk is repentant? Where? Because he never is. Ever. I suppose if you only read those lines of the libretto you might think so, however, not two lines before the aria he is lamenting the dishonor he has been dealt and cursing the queen and Leicester. So did this person only read the text of the aria, with no context? Did no one proofread the program? How could no one catch this?!?

I find the entire affair greatly amusing (Norwich, ha!) yet at the same time deeply depressing. What does it mean for our culture if the people who are disseminating the information about the classical arts don't know their material from a hole in the ground? I would imagine that a lot of people who were at the Flórez concert (that is where this all started, after all) have never even heard the complete work - as far as I can tell it hasn't been performed in NYC any time recently, and I don't think Flórez has ever sung the role on stage. How would they even know it was in error? There's a lot about opera that I don't know - what incorrect information have I been unknowingly exposed to? It is sad, disturbing, and a little maddening.

Do you suppose this obsession is normal?

Rant over.

I was thinking that wouldn't it be great if I could share some Elisabetta with you, and guess what? Hello YouTube, I can! Unfortunately, they don't include the really good acting bits, and the picture is so small (and dark - the video I have isn't that dark). Here's one anyway (I just wish you could see the subtitles!) This is the big duet between Norfolk and Elizabeth. This piece of music is amazing - it changes and evolves and I just love it. Near the beginning where Norfolk is hovering behind Elizabeth sitting on the divan and he is telling her to "think about your kingdom" - doesn't he just look like he wants to grab her? He covets her power so much that it's palpable. And musically, the quiet bit in the middle is fantastic - they are singing about completely different things, he is about to get his heart's desire (so he thinks) and she has just had her heart broken - yet it fits so well (and is so beautiful). Then, the music turns fast again and Norfolk tells Elizabeth to decide. She chooses vengeance, which suits Norfolk just fine, and now they sing with the same intention. You can feel the disdain Norfolk feels for Leicester. The music turns positively stirring and has an almost military feel to it. Elizabeth will get her revenge and Norfolk thinks he's won. It's fantastic.


At 12:52 PM, Blogger Sandra said...

I still think you are mega-giga opera freak, fir only a brief note on "Queen of the night" - that aria is the best ever! Not only I can listen and listen again - but I can also sing it - specially when family is bothering me!


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