By Janos Gereben
SAN FRANCISCO – From Lucia di Lammermoor and L’Elisir d’Amore to Don Pasquale and more, Gaetano Donizetti has always been a mainstay of San Francisco Opera’s Italian repertory, firmly in third place to Puccini and Verdi.
The big exception here to Donizetti’s popularity, box-office attraction, and numerous stagings: Roberto Devereux, which had a single production in the company’s 96-year history.
That drought ended on Sept. 8 with the acclaimed premiere of the Stephen Lawless production, first seen at the Dallas Opera in 2009, and most recently in the 2014 Canadian Opera presentation.
One key reason for both the dearth of Devereux performances and the ovation in the War Memorial is the difficulty of finding singers for the “impossibly” demanding roles, especially for Queen Elizabeth (“Elisabetta”), whose romance and fight with Devereux, the Earl of Essex, is at the center of the opera.
How hard is the role? That one previous San Francisco Devereux, in 1979, featured Montserrat Caballé, who withdrew after the premiere, leaving the young cover, Ellen Kerrigan, to step in for the rest of the run. In addition, the monarch of Donizetti queens, Beverly Sills, delayed taking on Elisabetta and said that singing the role took 10 years off her career.
On Saturday night, Sondra Radvanovsky’s Elisabetta ruled, loved, suffered, took revenge, despaired… did everything but show the slightest sign of effort.
In a house sadly far from sold out, the soprano gave a powerful, intense, gloriously musical, and dramatically gripping performance over a tremendous vocal and emotional range. From beginning to end, it was a performance for the ages.
During rehearsals, in an interview with San Francisco Classical Voice, Radvanovsky said of Elisabetta: “You can see her breaking down as the opera goes on. It’s sometimes modified screaming, because she’s at the end of her rope. To see this strong woman fall apart because of love, an unrequited love, that is so fun to play.”
The “fun” part is curious, but “modified screaming” is an unfair description of appropriately near-strident sounds, always in service of the work. Along with those dramatic moments, Radvanovsky’s performance was consistently and amazingly brilliant in the effortless, rafter-shaking high notes, coloratura passage work, and natural ornamentation that never sounded artificial.
Two years after Radvanovsky completed the Donizetti Triple Crown with Devereux at the Met, the New York Times verdict of “a milestone in the career of an essential artist” was upheld here, serving as a highlight of the first season programmed and cast by San Francisco Opera general director Matthew Shilvock alone since the retirement of his predecessor, David Gockley, in 2016.
Radvanovsky is surrounded by a superb cast in the production, which was conducted by Riccardo Frizza and directed by Lawless. Of special interest and note is that, other than Elisabetta, the entire cast were making their role debuts – something you’d never know without reading the program.
Jamie Barton bowed as Sara, Duchess of Nottingham; Russell Thomas appeared in the title role; Adler Fellow Andrew Manea stepped in to the important role of Nottingham, replacing Artur Rucinski, injured in an accident just two weeks before the premiere; and other young Adler Fellows Amitai Pati and Christian Pursell played Lord Cecil and Raleigh, respectively.
As in every other appearance in San Francisco, Barton impressed greatly with beauty of tone and effortless projection in the huge, 3,200-seat War Memorial. The score for Elisabetta calls for a variety of styles, but the role of Sara is almost pure bel canto, and Barton’s floating of melodic lines was nonpareil.
Vocal beauty was also a hallmark of Thomas’ performance, dealing with a curious title role, “title” in name only (“The Stormy Twilight of Queen Elizabeth” would have been truthful but awkward). More than making up for a passive stage presence, Thomas’ vocal performance in duets and a splendid “Come uno spirto angelico” were to be treasured.
The role of Nottingham, who is agonizingly conflicted by his friendship with Devereux, is a lengthy, major challenge to an actor-singer, but “understudy” Manea aced it. His warm voice, assured stage presence, and handling of the transformation from loyal friend to deadly enemy all marked a significant chapter in a young career.
The spectacular production on the Globe Theatre-inspired open set — designed by Lawless and Benoît Dugardyn, who died just a few months ago, and costumed elegantly by Ingeborg Bernerth — worked well, even if it appeared overly busy at times. A great deal of historical information is displayed and explained in speedy supertitles during the overture, the music heralding the evening-long splendor from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra under Frizza’s knowing baton.
Among the torrent of historical data projected during the overture, there is one incongruous item: the major “God Save the Queen” theme-and-variations in the music is seriously anachronistic because Elizabeth died 141 years before Unknown (or John Bull) composed the song. Oh well…
Janos Gereben joined San Francisco Classical Voice when it was founded in 1998; he also writes about music and art for the San Francisco Examiner and other publications.