everly Sills has said that Elizabeth I in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux was the role that took 10 years off her career, and indeed, it’s a fearsome undertaking. It is very long, it encompasses a slightly larger than two-octave span, there are forte passages at both ends (in ensembles and alone), and the sheer number of notes the character has to get out is awe-inspiring. Emotionally, too, the part is ripping:
The elderly Elizabeth, in love with the young Earl of Essex who in turn loves Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham (forget real English history), is a ferocious monarch, comfortable and powerful only when ruling, and, in private, a shattered woman filled with vulnerabilities and doubts. It’s a truly tragic figure Donizetti has given us, and when Sills first appeared in the role at the New York City Opera in 1970, it cemented her reputation as one of the world’s greatest singing actresses. (Montserrat Caballé and Leyla Gencer performed it in Europe at approximately the same period, and while their readings are poignant and special in the way that only they can be, Sills gets deeper into the character and sings all of the notes–and then some–more accurately than either.)
This set was recorded before the City Opera performances took place, but Sills already had the role in hand and her voice was at its pristine best. One could validly argue that Caballé and Gencer had more suitable voices for the part–Sills’ somewhat narrow tone is, well, somewhat narrow–but Sills is in absolute control of every resource she ever had here: accurate roulades, brutal chest tones, full-bodied high notes (interpolated up to an E-flat–the written part only goes to C), the ability to express both rage and joy, an impeccable bel canto line, stupendous breath control.
What more is needed?
The rest of the cast is not up to her level but has nothing to be ashamed of either: Hungarian tenor Robert Ilosfalvy sings Roberto with ardor and nice tone; at the time, the record label compared him to Jussi Björling and that only led listeners to disappointment when they discovered the lie. Peter Glossop’s un-Italianate voice was not really suited to Nottingham’s music, but his artistry gets him past that hurdle and he’s very fine indeed. Beverly Wolff’s Sara is good without being truly impressive, but to be honest, no character’s music in the opera is as good as Elizabeth’s. The opera tends to slow down when she’s not around, although those moments are pretty rare. Charles Mackerras is not the ideal conductor for Donizetti–he’s a bit literal where expressiveness matters more–but this scarcely detracts from the whole. This set’s appearance on CD should be applauded.