With Met’s “Roberto Devereux” premiere, Radvanovsky crowns her Tudor tour-de-force

March 26, 2016
By Eric C. Simpson
Sondra Radvanovsky stars in Donizetti's "Roberto Devereux" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Sondra Radvanovsky stars in Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Perhaps it was mere coincidence that the belated Metropolitan Opera premiere of Roberto Devereux took place on the 413th anniversary of the death of Queen Elizabeth I. One would have thought that the company’s voluminous promotional materials and interviews would have highlighted that fact.

It was fitting, though, that on Thursday evening a soprano should give an incandescent performance, inhabiting the role of Elizabeth as though receiving mystical assistance from across the centuries.

Sondra Radvanovsky has in a sense been the protagonist not just of a handful of operas but of the entire Met season, embarking back in September on a historic quest to sing all three of Donizetti’s Tudor queens. Her first two installments, as the doomed title characters in Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda, were memorable in their own right, brilliantly sung and compellingly portrayed. Debuting a new role at a major company is no small task, and her Elizabeth Thursday night reached new heights, setting a high bar for all who follow her in years to come.

Roberto Devereux is Elizabeth’s opera in all but name. Her jealousy leads her beloved Robert, Earl of Essex to the block for his abortive rebellion, and though she tries to assign blame elsewhere, it is her signature on the death warrant. Above all, it is the force of her will and the unraveling of her psyche that most fascinate us as observers, and Radvanovsky played these with vigor and pathos.

In his productions of the three Tudor operas, Sir David McVicar seems particularly fascinated by the trajectory of Elizabeth, who appears in Anna Bolena as a three-year-old princess and in Maria Stuarda seems already hobbled by her three decades on the throne. From her very first moments in Roberto Devereux, we see her as a proud monarch who can feel her power slipping away, threatened by the presence of Sara, a beautiful young noblewoman of her court, and pathologically vindictive in her dealings. Wounded by the suppressed affection between Sara and Essex, she condemns her favorite to satisfy her spite.

Her arc finally comes crashing down in the final scene, a harrowing declaration of despair that by its end turns into a quasi-mad scene as the tormented queen sees visions of Essex’s headless ghost and a bloody crown, to the amazed horror of her onlooking courtiers. The depth of Radvanovsky’s dramatic commitment to the scene was tremendous: watching her shamble about the stage, removing her wig and  dressing gown, was devastating, and finally she stood shriveled, barely recognizable as the indomitable queen of Act I.

Radvanovsky made a number of vocal choices that some might call ill-advised, such as the interpolated high note that she squeezed out and quickly abandoned at the end of that scene. But these adventures were thrilling even in the attempt, and for the most part her vocal performance was a shining success, showing off gauzy pianissimos and a searing top. The delicious brightness and scathing power of the cabaletta “Ah! ritorna qual ti spero” earned the night’s first and longest ovation.

The most striking thing about Roberto Devereux as a piece is how extraordinarily well balanced it is, thanks in no small part to the libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, who took his cues from François Ancelot. The opera is a star vehicle for Elizabeth, to be sure, but the supporting characters, led by Essex, fill out a leading quartet who are all complex figures in their own right.

As the hapless rebel of the title, Matthew Polenzani was brilliant, bringing urgent passion to every moment of his role. His prison scene, including the tender aria “Come uno spirto angelico,” was heartbreaking, intense and burning one moment, then softly sobbing in the next. He sang with a bright, consistent tone, with rich cream in his upper range, and delivered his aria with such sensitivity that he earned a little indulgence when he lost some steam in the cabaletta.

No less formidable was Elina Garanča, a sympathetic figure as Sara, trapped in a marriage she never wanted. She used her beautiful, seamless, dark timbre to superb effect, giving one of her most emotionally charged Met performances to date. One of the highlights of the evening was the clandestine encounter between Sara and Essex, a beautifully acted scene of forbidden love; the vocal lines in their duet “Dacche tornasti, ahi misera!” are lovingly intertwined, and the intense affection that the two actors showed for each other perfectly mirrored the feel of the music.

She gave a compelling picture of her troubled relationship with her husband, the Duke of Nottingham, though that was dulled somewhat by the direction given to Mariusz Kwiecien, whose bouts of jealous rage were here blamed on drink. Uncharacteristically, Kwiecien struggled vocally, often sounding thin and unfocused, though at his best he displayed a wine-dark, smoky tone.

Maurizio Benini, the Met’s standby conductor for all things bel canto, was barely adequate on Thursday. The overture was ragged by the end, and the rest of the score, light in orchestration to begin with, was unimaginative and lethargic in realization, taking a lenient view of the singers’ rubato that allowed them to stretch bars out of proportion. The chorus sang with plenty of power, though without their usual gleam.

The eye for historical detail in McVicar’s staging is even keener than in his other productions of the cycle. Moritz Junge’s handsome costumes take their inspiration from Elizabethan-era portraiture; Essex’s first costume, a flashy black surcoat finished with silver threading over black plate armor (admittedly an odd choice for court dress) is lifted directly from a William Segar portrait.

This is more heavily symbolic than the other productions have been, as well. Always looming behind the set (a clever, sliding black-and-gold room of state with an upper balcony) is an enormous reproduction of the Hampton Court astronomical clock. To the right and left of the main center-stage doors stand recessed statues of Death and Time, likely pulled from an anonymous “Allegorical Portrait” of Elizabeth. The mysterious funeral staged during the overture is only explained when its sarcophagus reappears in the final scene as Elizabeth proclaims her own end. Death, we are to understand, is everywhere, and the Queen is running out of time–a strong central idea, though one presented with a heavy hand.

The combination of a star-studded cast, a Met premiere, and several brilliant performances made for a thrilling atmosphere in the house. Loud ovations followed nearly every number, right up until the roaring final curtain call. Radvanovsky was nearly overcome by the emotion of the moment, and lingered to drink in the rapturous applause. It has been a privilege to watch her in this cycle, at what surely must be the high point of her career thus far. One looks forward to the high points still to come.

Roberto Devereux runs through April 19 at the Metropolitan Opera. metopera.org

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