Jetske Mijnssen
Photo: Ben van Duin

An interview with Jetske Mijnssen

15 April 2024

Elizabeth in a drawing-room drama

An ‘end game’ is how Tudor trilogy director Jetske Mijnssen describes the opera Roberto Devereux. She reflects on the first two operas in the trilogy and looks ahead to the final opera. 

How do you feel so far about your Tudor trilogy? 
In January 2018, I had my first meeting with Enrique (Mazzola, ed.) and we started exchanging ideas about the trilogy. Bel canto was a completely new world for me, a world that Enrique introduced me to in his typically welcoming style. With his enormous affection for the material and knowledge of it, he opened my eyes and ears to what we would be embarking on. I see what we have been able to do in the past two seasons as a gift. For a director, it is wonderful to be able to work on a series of three productions revolving around the same theme, and to some extent with the same characters. 

Looking back at the previous two operas, we started with Anna Bolena, which presents a claustrophobic world. The audience saw a historical account of a marriage that has run aground and a child who becomes irreparably damaged as a result. There was a realistic element to the way in which we told that story. In the second opera, Maria Stuarda, the audience was presented with a more surrealist world full of obsessions, with two women, each of whom had got inside the other’s head. They were haunted by one another and the tone became even more claustrophobic, especially in the final scene in the prison where Elisabetta visits Maria as if in a dream. So those two works were very different in their narrative style and expression. 

How does Roberto Devereux fit in with the first two operas? 
Roberto Devereux will be different again. First, I should point out that although Donizetti composed the three Tudor operas of our trilogy in the space of just seven years, he developed hugely as a composer during that time. Enrique always says you can hear the origins of Verdi in Roberto, but I would actually go further than that even. In Roberto Devereux, Donizetti breaks loose from the aesthetics of the first two operas to embrace a much more direct narrative approach. It is almost a play, a romantic thriller. We are no longer watching a queen and her courtiers; we are watching human beings.

Roberto Devereux is a masterpiece, one that in my opinion is not performed enough. As a work of theatre, it is by far the strongest of the Tudor operas. The way it builds up tension and the mood is outstanding, even in the context of Donizetti’s other works. The opera’s content is also quite different to that of the other two. That’s why we decided to go for a more modern approach for this production. We enter a present-day world with characters who deal with one another in a more direct, modern way. 

Rehearsal Roberto Devereux
Ismael Jordi (Roberto Devereux) and Angela Brower (Sara) during a rehearsal | Photo: Ben van Duin | Photo: Ben van Duin

Can you say something more about those characters?
This opera follows four characters. We see Roberto Devereux, the queen’s much younger lover who has betrayed her, both in love and in politics. We see the dramatic character of Sara, not only a lady-in-waiting and close companion of the queen but also Roberto’s former lover who is now caught against her will in a marriage that is on the point of collapse. She is married to the Duke of Nottingham, a true gentleman and faithful friend to Devereux who is willing to go to great lengths to defend Devereux before Parliament. He remains loyal to his wife and his queen, but his world falls apart when he discovers he has been betrayed by both his friend and his wife. And at the heart of the opera is Elisabetta, a woman who despite her age still expects so much from life and cannot bear to give up Devereux. She is prepared to forgive his treachery if he declares his love for her. That’s really quite childish — and at the same time a sign of desperation. She sees this man as her last chance of love and a life! She doesn’t want to hear of his treason; all she cares about is his love. But poor Devereux knows he cannot return her love. 

Could you therefore say this opera is more about Elisabetta than about Roberto? 
This opera is a real ‘end game’. We see a life falling apart, and consequently a world crumbling. Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda both featured a main character who had all the power and was fully in control. It is different here as power is ebbing away from Elisabetta and shifting to Parliament. We see a queen who no longer holds sway to the same extent, as she herself realises. She senses an inner emptiness, which makes her latch on desperately to this final chance of love. We’ve all had that experience of falling so deeply in love with someone that you assume they must feel the same about you. But at the same time, you know deep down inside that it’s too good to be true. In a way, Elisabetta reminds me of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. She too is an older woman who clings to a much younger lover. But whereas the Marschallin eventually accepts the passing of time and lets Octavian go, Elisabetta can’t do the same with Roberto. 

Jetske Mijnssen

‘By the time the curtain falls, we are looking at four people who have lost everything’ 

Could you say a few words about the costumes and sets? 
While I found the historical costumes used in Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda lovely and inspiring, my team and I felt this opera demanded a modern setting. Audiences will find themselves in an elegant, regal world. You see the preparations for a ball, an event where everyone looks superb. Except for Roberto, who is an outsider. As Elisabetta’s outfits become more and more formal, her situation becomes increasingly forlorn. The costumes become more frigid and impersonal. Elisabetta ends as an ageing, crushed woman. All the splendour we saw at the start of the opera is dismantled. 

As regards the stage sets, we start in the kind of chic bedroom you might find in the series The Crown. For Elisabetta, that bedroom is a place where she feels safe, where she spends time with her ladies-in-waiting and the people close to her. But in the course of the opera, that sense of safety wanes slowly but surely. Audiences who saw the previous two operas in the trilogy may recognise parts of the decor from those productions. That is our way of showing how Elisabetta is haunted and hemmed in by her past. At the end of the opera, Elisabetta stands alone in a world that has fallen apart. Her final realisation is that her life is a failure, and at that point she loses the will to continue. 

In a certain sense, this approach means we have turned Roberto Devereux into a drawing-room play where all the action takes place in an enclosed room. It is somewhat reminiscent of Chekhov, or even Pinter, where people are brought together in a confined space. By the time the curtain falls, we are looking at four people who have lost everything. Even Nottingham wonders at the end how sweet his revenge actually is. In the third act, Roberto sings two arias in succession. Interestingly, he addresses Nottingham in the first and Elisabetta in the second. It is touching to see how this man who is facing death turns to both his rival and his former lover. He asks Nottingham for forgiveness for Sara and he promises Elisabetta he will plead for her forgiveness in heaven. Roberto has given up all hope of happiness on Earth. 

The whole trilogy is about people who are stuck in their lives, restricted by their obligations and their religion. These are timeless stories about human powerlessness and pain. Presenting these narratives and letting you empathise with these people is what opera is all about.

Text: Maxim Paulissen

Roberto Devereux will be performed from 18 April to 6 May 2024 at Dutch National Opera & Ballet