Friday, April 1, 2016

Roberto Devereux - God Save (???) the Queen

Roberto Devereux, photo by Ken Howard

Last night I saw Sondra Radvanovsky complete her "Three Queens" trilogy with a performance of Roberto Devereux, commonly thought to be the most difficult role in the trilogy. Overall I thought it was the most impressive of her portrayals, although as with all things Sondra she was consistently inconsistent.


I didn't expect her to cope flawlessly with the vocal demands of the role. The role is notoriously difficult and Beverly Sills once said it took five years off her career. Radvanovsky however is not a singer who makes you forget this passage here or that passage there that was bumpy. In fact, her style of singing magnifies all those bumps in the road. Part of it is her voice -- a large, unwieldy instrument with that doesn't have the flexibility for all the tricky coloratura-with-sudden-octave-drops that Donizetti wrote for Giuseppina Ronzi di Begnis. Cabalettas had to be taken at a slow pace -- "Quel sangue" was practically a dirge. But I could accept that "Vivi ingrato" and "Quel sangue" would not be sung with the ideal ease and speed and momentum.

Less forgivable are rather unmusical habits that have crept into her singing. Her blazing upper register (up to a D natural) is both a blessing and a curse -- audiences crave the ear splitting acuti and she usually delivers -- "Ah! ritorna qual ti spero" ended with a fabulous D natural. But she also lunges at these high notes in a veristic manner, and ignored the repeated high B's that preceded the cabaletta's finale. She's overly fond of repeating certain vocal effects -- a wispy pianissimo whether the music calls for it or not, snarled/spoken declamation and glottal attacks rather than truly dipping into her lower register. And one wishes she hadn't gone for the high D at the end of the "Quel sangue," as she couldn't really sustain the note and so when Elizabeth collapsed on the floor it seemed out of vocal necessity rather than as a dramatic choice.

Radvanovsky in the final scene, photo @ Ken Howard
But Sondra's obvious hard work and diligence were also evident and her voice for all its flaws has a way of rising majestically with the music. Donizetti's opera has such grandeur written into the music for Elizabeth that to hear Sondra's voice flood the auditorium in a huge wave of sound had its own built-in thrill. Sondra's acting was also less histrionic than I had feared -- yes she might overdo the old-lady gait that apparently afflicted the real-life Elizabeth I, but she also captured the desperation and pain of the queen. In the past vulnerability isn't something that Sondra conveyed naturally, but when she sang "Vivi ingrato" she made the wise decision of singing directly to the audience, and you wept with the queen. Sondra will never be a singer I adore. But I do admire and respect her accomplishment this season.

Hard-working Gelb stalwart Matthew Polenzani I heard struggle with the title role's prison scene cavatina/cabaletta on opening night. Last night he cancelled right before curtain time and was replaced by Mario Zeffiri, who actually had a light, graceful tenore di grazia which he used with a refreshing sense of primo ottocento style. His voice was a bit underpowered and he approached the cabaletta "Bagnato in sen di lagrime" very gingerly but give him credit -- he sang both verses, with the second verse decorated. I heard the Met audience ungraciously boo him during curtain calls. The two people next to me booed him. I wanted to slap them.

Here's a clip of him singing "Credeasi misera":



Garanca and Kwiecien, photo by Ken Howard
Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca (Sara) was true luxury casting: she had the gorgeous timbre, arresting stage presence, and ease of vocal emission that made her emanate star quality. Her voice has grown in size and her upper register is now much more powerful, so she was able to interpolate quite a few high notes. Sara's music is sort of ho-hum but Garanca made it sound beautiful, especially her opening cavatina "All' affitto." Less felicitous casting was Mariusz Kwiecien as Duke of Nottingham, who has reshaped his baritone into an almost unrecognizably dark, snarling instrument. Fine, do that if you can actually sing the music. But he sounded horrific -- off pitch braying on any sustained tones, ugly barking elsewhere. For whatever reason Nottingham was directed as ambiguously gay, with strong romantic vibes with Devereux. It's weird how in Pearlfishers Kwiecien and Polenzani showed very little bromantic chemistry, when both the music and text support some homoerotic longing. Nottingham and Devereux? I don't see it, but okay.

Conductor Maurizio Benini conducted a shapeless, unstylish account of the score. Part of this might have been his adjustment for the idiosyncratic phrasing and rhythm of Radvanovsky, but part of it seemed like laziness. For instance in the overture he played the "God Save the Queen" melody with no sense of solemnity, and the instruments were shockingly out of tune. He then switched gears to the "Bagnato in sen di lagrime" melody as if it were a Sousa marching band anthem.

The production overall was a success. David McVicar avoided the dourness and stodginess that crept into his productions of Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda. The large handsome unit set that McVicar designed himself served the production well -- it evokes both a royal court and an Elizabethan-era theater. I could have done without the quirk of having the courtiers constantly present in the upper "gallery" but overall the production told the story, was nice to look at, and satisfied 21st century America's craving for all things Tudor era. The costumes by Moritz Junge were very colorful and, as I said, satisfied this Tudor buff.  McVicar was not working with very strong singing actors, but he drew decent acting performances from everyone.

This Met season had five operas by Donizetti and the real success story was that after many years of lagging behind, uh, the entire opera world, the Met audiences and the administration has embraced primo ottocento masterpieces. All three Queen trilogy operas play fast and loose with historical facts, but all of them have something deeper: emotional truth that is more compelling than pure historical accuracy, and that credit belongs to Donizetti alone. I mean, listen to this. There is no book than can make me feel Elizabeth I's inner life more than these fifteen minutes of music:

Singer is Mariella Devia, who I heard sing this in Carnegie Hall in 2014. It was only one of the greatest experiences of my operatic life.


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