Maria Stuarda -- Sarah Palin vs. Hillary?

Elsa van den Heever and Sondra Radvanovsky, photo by Ken Howard

Sondra Radvanovsky's plans to tackle all three Tudor Queens in one season just got one more box checked: she's now sung both Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda and only has Roberto Devereux left. Roberto Devereux is the opera she's sung the most, and it's probably one of the most hotly anticipated events in the season. Her Anna Bolena earlier this season was ... well, I'd say it was an interesting failure. I attended the second performance of her Maria Stuarda last night.

Of all three queens, her portrayal of Mary Stuart probably got the least buzz -- the house was depressingly empty. And Sondra's large, occasionally unwieldy role on the surface seems an awkward fit for the most lyrical of Donizetti's three Queens. But oddly, while I thought her Bolena was an interesting failure, I thought her Maria Stuarda was a qualified success.

Why was it a success? Well, for one, Sondra's voice is an unusual one. The negatives to her performance: she has a very weak to non-existent lower register, and relies on glottal attacks and declamation in those areas of the score. The famous curse "Figlia umpura di Bolena ... vil bastarda!" was not really sung but spit out, verismo-style. It was actually a rather ugly and unmusical way of handling one of the opera's most exciting moments. Her voice is also at its most comfortable and free in extreme dynamics -- very soft pianissimo and very loud fortissimo. When she's just singing "regularly" her voice has an intrusive vibrato and pitch can be suspect. I'm not even an Italian speaker but I could hear some funny vowels: she pronounced "sempre" and "simp-reee." Also: very weak trill.

But the thing about Sondra is that Maria Stuarda is a role where except for a few moments, the weak lower register and the over-reliance on extreme dynamics works. Many of the big "money" moments -- the opening cavatina "O nube", the confession and preghiera, the final aria before the execution -- she sang in that wispy pianissimo, where, as I said, all of a sudden her voice becomes flexible, free, and even beautiful. She also has a fantastic upper register which she used to her advantage, whether it was floating that extended high G in the prayer (she did take a breath midway, but it was still impressive), or ending ensembles with loud and sustained acuti. Maria's music has an extreme upward arc -- the melody usually rises and rises. It's very celestial sounding. So the comparative weakness of Sondra's lower and middle register are forgotten when the music rises to the high climax. I remember Joyce DiDonato doing this role and no matter how musical and scrupulous she was, she couldn't quite make her voice rise to the climaxes. Sondra's voice could (mostly) match the music's demands.

Dramatically Sondra is often an awkward actress. She has a tendency to overact and add veristic sound effects to her singing. The first act had some of the sobs and exaggerated facial expressions that set my teeth on edge but in the long second act scena she surprisingly kept it simple and direct. The tremors that Joyce DiDonato worked into her portrayal of pre-execution Mary are mercifully gone -- Sondra's Mary walked to her execution as a proud and stoic monarch. David McVicar's production is rather efficient if unimaginative. The one big coup de theatre is Mary taking off her wig and dress in the last moments of the opera to reveal a red petticoat, Catholic martyr to the end.

Elsa van den Heever, photo by Ken Howard

So Sondra's Maria Stuarda was flawed but impressive. However, the structure of the opera demands not just one but two strong female voices and personalities. The fascination of Mary Stuart vs. Elizabeth I was the fact that these were two formidable, indomitable women in a battle of wills. Donizetti's opera plays fast and loose with historical accuracy but he did capture the power struggle between the two stubborn, implacable queens. But Elsa van den Heever's voice last night was shrill and colorless, and her musical values approximate -- there was no sense of character or bel canto legato. She played up the Bette Davis caricature even more -- the hobbling on a cane, sneering and cackling, just acting a fool. It was like a Carol Burnett sketch. This imbalance undercuts the dramatic structure of the opera. Mary vs. Elizabeth should have been like a hypothetical clash had, say, Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher ever lived in the same era and ran for the same office. Two intelligent, iron-willed women on the opposite ends of the political spectrum duking it out. Instead it was more like Hillary Clinton vs. Sarah Palin.

The men varied. An unexpected surprise was Celso Albelo as Leicester. His timbre is not very striking, but he sang with a fairly elegant style. Patrick Carfizzi was maybe having an off night as Cecil? Because I can barely remember really hearing him sing. It was as if he marked most of the performance. Kwangchul Youn was a gravelly, unsteady Talbot. There was also no sense of spiritual authority in his portrayal -- he disappeared in the long confession scene with Maria. Maria Zifchak as Maria's servant has gone into the unlistenable comprimario stage of her career. Ricardo Frizza's performance had more energy and discipline than Marco Armiliato's performance of Bolena in the fall, and noticeably less egregious drop-out-to-hit-a-high-note showboating.

Sondra Radvanovsky is a singer I often find extremely frustrating, as she combines an instrument of great volume, range, and even flexibility with distracting vocal flaws. But Maria Stuarda was actually a role where she worked around her vocal quirks and gave an impressive performance. I look forward to her Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux.


  1. Are you sure about Devereux being her most frequently sung of the Tudor Queens. She has full runs in DC, Chicago, and Met for sure which at 6 performances per run would equal Sills 18, allof which were one way or another with NYCO . The only run of Devereux was Toronto last year and I believe the Stuarda is only her second run (the first in Spain I believe). I am looking forward to my Stuarda (16th February) and 2 performances in addition to the movie HD of Devereux. Sills has 38 of those dwarfing any other exponent I can think of.

    1. I'm not saying she's sung the opera more than Sills, just that of the three (MS, AB, and RD) she's sung RD the most.


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