By James L. Paulk
NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Opera’s premiere production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux reminds us that for all the fuss about productions, conductors, and ensembles, the most thrilling nights in the opera house are all about extraordinary voices, the ones that come along from time to time and trigger something deep inside the listener. Most often in my experience, these are sopranos. And the soprano of the moment is Sondra Radvanovsky. After conquering the great Verdi roles, she sang Norma to international acclaim. And now she has moved on into soprano assoluta territory, taking on Donizetti’s “Tudor Trilogy”: Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux. (The last continues at the Met through April 19.)
In doing so, she follows in the footsteps of the greatest bel canto sopranos. The roster includes Leyla Gencer, Montserrat Caballé, Mariella Devia, and Edita Gruberová. Beverly Sills managed to sing all three in one season at New York City Opera, the same feat now accomplished at the Met, more than 40 years later, by Radvanovsky, who portrays Queen Elizabeth in the new Devereux. Earlier this season, she sang the first two installments of this troika.
Radvanovsky is not without detractors. Some consider her voice too heavy for bel canto. There is definitely a metallic edge to her sound. Her diction can be a bit murky. And in the earlier two operas, there were a few times when her coloratura flights landed a bit off pitch, though at the performance of Maria Stuarda I attended she was singing under duress; an announcement was made that she was ill.
On opening night (March 24), she was totally healthy. And in the Elizabeth of Devereux, depicted as elderly, with a tough exterior, she found a role ideally suited to her talents. Elizabeth is more of a sfogato role than Bolena and Stuarda, demanding more power in the lower register. A singer must demonstrate the character’s strength and toughness with her voice. (Joan Sutherland, who had performed the other two roles, stayed away from Devereux for this reason.)
Radvanovsky gave us all this and more. Her voice conveyed not only the proud exterior, but the deep insecurity and feminine vulnerability underneath it all. Her Elizabeth was frightening, vivid, and sympathetic all at once. Radvanovsky’s acting has sometimes seemed awkward and wooden. But here she was persuasive, moving with the unsteady gait of an aging woman, her face twitching at times. Dressed magnificently by Moritz Junge, she was riveting. From her entrance until the final scene, when she’d removed her wig — echoing the same gesture in Maria Stuarda — morphing from a proud, confident queen into a lonely, sad old woman, she held the audience enthralled in a way that is quite rare.
In the opera, the queen’s favorite courtier is Roberto Devereux, Earl of Essex, a military leader now charged with treason. She clearly views their relationship as a love affair, but Devereux is secretly in love with Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, whose husband, the Duke, is Roberto’s best friend and defender.
Tenor Matthew Polenzani was superb in the title role. He has a strong voice, nice diction, excellent intonation, and beautiful legato. In his big, final-act solo, when he determines that he must ask Elizabeth for a pardon in order to clear Sara’s reputation, he sang with an aching tenderness. Mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča was a stunning Sara, with elegant tone and fine phrasing. Baritone Mariusz Kwiecień, as Nottingham, acted persuasively and got through his big aria nicely, but came up short on the high notes.
Conductor Maurizio Benini is well regarded as a bel canto specialist, so it’s hard to account for his pacing of Devereux. After frantically galloping through the delicate overture, he never seemed to settle on a tempo, slowing precipitously for some arias, then pausing oddly between phrases. Perhaps he intended this as a way of supporting his singers, but the effect was to rob the opera of energy and continuity.
As with the prior installments of the “Tudor Trilogy,” this was a rather posh David McVicar production. McVicar doesn’t really do frugal and is best known for monumental productions such as the Covent Garden Les Troyens, which went on to tour the earth. Still, there were gestures toward moderation; the entire opera took place in a unit set, albeit a vast, elegant black and gold one.
Much of Devereux consists of secretive dialogues, so McVicar’s decision to populate the sides and balconies of the set with openly eavesdropping courtiers seemed confusing and awkward. Apparently, this was supposed to be both a “play within a play” concept and an observation on the lack of privacy at court in those days, but it made little sense against the dialogue, during which, for example, a powerful and revered monarch would order the room cleared before speaking in confidence. Similarly, the decision to roll out Elisabeth’s tomb during the overture did no great harm but was extraneous.
Met veterans were bound to feel a certain nostalgia when confronted with a giant, handsome new production, mounted for a great singer and paid for by the famously traditionalist patron Mrs. Sybil Harrington, even if the donation was posthumous. It was her kind of night, and a reminder of what an electric place the Metropolitan Opera can become when a singular talent like Radvanovsky gets the full Met treatment.
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James L. Paulk is a freelance music critic based in the Hudson Valley and in New York City. During the past seven years, he wrote regularly for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.