Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Maurizio Benini
Producer/ Director: Sir David McVicar
Queen Elizabeth (Elisabetta): Sondra Radvanovsky
Robert (Roberto) Devereux, Earl of Essex: Matthew Polenzani
Sarah (Sara), Duchess of Nottingham: Elina Garanca
Duke of Nottingham: Mariusz Kwiecien
After the Metropolitan Opera’s offerings of Anna Bolena with Anna Netrebko and Maria Stuarda with Joyce di Donato in the past couple of years, I was more than ready to conclude the Tudor trilogy with Roberto Devereux starring Sondra Radvanovsky last Saturday afternoon. The commanding American soprano reportedly dazzled opera lovers in New York earlier this season after she took over the two aforementioned roles, and by all accounts is now capping off a glorious home run with the third and final chapter of the Three Donizetti Queens.
As if to make this crown achievement as memorable as possible, the Met pulled all the stops and gathered an impressive cast including some of the hottest names in the opera world these days with Elina Garanca, Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien. The presence of David McVicar as producer was good news as well since his productions for the other two queens had turned out to be definitely adequate, occasionally inspired.
So it was with great expectations that I walked down Broadway on a ridiculously warm and sunny afternoon last Saturday to join my friend Steve and a sold-out audience at the Met, almost feeling sorry for myself for having to sit inside for three hours, but also confident that my sacrifice would be rewarded.
In the relatively familiar environment of 16th century England's Elizabethan court – Never mind the liberties taken with history to deliver more gripping drama – Roberto Devereux presents highly problematic love and power entanglements which can only finish badly, but which also provide the perfect excuse for a sparkling bel canto score. So if all went as planned, big feelings, big statements and big musical feats would abound and converge to create a quintessential opera experience, and boy did we happily suck it all in on Saturday.
The opera's title may be Roberto Devereux, but there was no mistaking that it was Sondra Radvanovsky's show when the intrepid soprano immediately grabbed Elisabetta’s part with her signature soaring singing and visceral acting, and stayed the course until the very end. When in the first act she fiercely pointed out how "great" her revenge would be, you knew she meant it; on the other hand, she was painfully vulnerable in her final scene when, without her regal wig and gown, she hobbled around the stage at her most disheveled and exposed. Aging and tormented, with a spectral white-powdered face and extravagant outfits, Radvanovsky’s queen had a Shakespearean grandeur that was truly haunting.
Not to be outdone, tenor Matthew Polenzani was a wonderfully hot-blooded Roberto Devereux, efficiently portraying Elisabetta’s former favorite who has just lost a major battle and is hopelessly in love with Sara, who is not only a close confident of the queen, but also the wife of a good friend of his. Yikes! Superbly singing with lyrical abandon and convincingly conveying all the anguish brought by his obviously uncomfortable position, Polenzani readily delivered a vivid portrayal of emotional turmoil.
The irresistible object of his affections, sweet yet strong-willed Sara, was beautifully impersonated by mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca, whose stunning darkly hued singing and natural charisma gave the young woman who has been trapped in a loveless marriage but has finally found true love a genuinely mesmerizing presence.
As the Duke of Nottingham, Sara's unloved husband and Roberto's faithful friend, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien contributed to the performance in spades by compellingly expressing the profound dismay of a good man who suddenly finds himself betrayed by his wife and his friend, and decides not to be good anymore.
If the plot revolved around four formidable singers, the smaller parts and the Met chorus were also in top singing form and helped make this engaging production a total crowd-pleaser.
As usual, David McVicar’s versatile set was not overly imaginative, but the fancy black and gold décors attractively bathed in the glow of chandeliers and smoothly morphed into the Tower of London. The production had some note-worthy touches such as an enormous clock occupying the back wall while statues of Death and Time stood on each side of the center doors. Another had the chorus overlook the action from the upper balconies and sides, turning the stage into a glitzy palace filled with countless gossiping courtiers.
When it comes to the music, very often with bel canto the score’s the thing. This one for sure did not stray from tradition as blazing arias kept on regularly popping out like fireworks while the characters were ferociously battling their fates out. Maestro Benini led the orchestra into a vibrant performance whose bright colors and pulsing intensity did not interfere with its underlying finesse. The standing ovation at curtain call was unusually long and loud, and oh so well deserved.