Monday night, the Metropolitan Opera performed Roberto Devereux, by Donizetti. It is the last of his “Three Queens” operas. The others are Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda. The Met has staged all three this season. The company had never before staged Devereux.
Singing the Three Queens—Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, and Elizabeth I—has been Sondra Radvanovsky, the American soprano. Thus is she repeating the famous feat of another American soprano, Beverly Sills.
When did Radvanovsky become a great singer? A great opera performer? An immortal? I can’t tell you. I can’t give you a month or a year. But it has happened in, what? The last five years?
She was always very good. She was hit-or-miss, though. Like every other critic—certainly in New York—I have reviewed Radvanovsky for ages.
She always rolled out a carpet of sound. Sometimes that carpet was fuzzy, or specked, but it was always serviceable, and it was sometimes beautiful. She had a decent understanding of music. Where she fell down was with intonation.
When she was on pitch, she sounded great. When she wasn’t, she didn’t. It was like she had a different voice. Singers usually have the same voice, whether they are on pitch or off. I think of the wonderful Frederica von Stade. In my experience, she was often flat, but you still had that wonderful von Stade sound. Radvanovsky was transformed, for the worse, when she was off pitch.
But that was then. Now is—flabbergasting.
On Monday night, as regularly in recent years, Radvanovsky was all-capable. She sang and acted with the air of someone who can do anything. There was never any hesitation or doubt or glitch. There wasn’t even a risk.
She sang a stunning low G and a stunning high E flat. There are miles between those notes. Her soft high singing was almost unbelievable. In Act I, she put on such a display of technical control, I swear my diaphragm hurt. She put on a clinic of technique.
The voice was huge, absolutely huge—but it was equally flexible. She never oversang. And she evinced a sure understanding of bel canto. Furthermore, her acting was not so much opera acting as real acting: acting acting.
I had the sense of witnessing something historic, frankly. I wonder what Sills would have thought, if she had heard it. Jealous? Impressed? Impressed, I think, and possibly grateful.
In a 2007 appreciation of the late soprano, I wrote, “Sills’s greatest accomplishment, she always said, was Queen Elizabeth I, in Donizetti’s opera Roberto Devereux. Indeed, she put that role on the map. All the same, few have tried it since.”
Well, Radvanovsky has. I wonder if she, too, will regard Elizabeth as her greatest accomplishment. In any case, it must number among them.
The mezzo in the part of Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham, on Monday night was Elina Garanca. In the early going, she had a case of the flats. But she defeated those later, singing freely and accurately. She was on top of the notes. Our baritone, singing the Duke, was Mariusz Kwiecien. He was smooth and baritonal.
There is no smooth like a baritonal smooth, don’t you agree? Kwiecien demonstrated it.
Scheduled to sing the title role, Devereux, was Matthew Polenzani. But he was indisposed, replaced by another tenor, Mario Zeffiri. Mr. Zeffiri’s talents are perhaps best suited to a smaller house. When singing with other principals, he was hopelessly mismatched. When singing alone, he was neat and adequate.
Presiding in the pit was Maurizio Benini, and the overture was not a model: not a model of togetherness or grace or tension. The players just banged it out there, like a pit band. In Acts I and II, their accompaniment was often blunt. They were sloppy too, in their entrances and the like.
In later stages of the show, however, both orchestra and conductor acquitted themselves better. Significantly better. Professionalism held sway.
The production is by Sir David McVicar, the Scottish director. On the whole, it is handsome and intelligent. It does not try to steal the show, as too many productions do. It is content to let Donizetti and his librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, shine.
In his review of an earlier performance, my esteemed colleague Martin Bernheimer wrote that Elizabeth wore “a ridiculous white-butterfly costume.” To be honest, the wings, or whatever they were, put me in mind of Mickey Mouse’s ears. Distracting.
But maybe I know too little about Elizabethan style.
From the Met, I have been reviewing a lot of Donizetti lately. Roberto Devereux and its companion operas. The Elixir of Love. Don Pasquale. Mozart? Wagner? Never heard of them. This is Donizetti’s hour, and he deserves it.
A footnote: According to opera tradition—certainly Met tradition—the singer in the title role comes out and bows last. (This is after the final curtain.) It doesn’t matter whether other singers, or other roles, are deemed more important. Take Verdi’s Don Carlo. You may think King Philip more important, or Rodrigo, or Elizabeth, but it’s going to be the tenor singing Don Carlo who comes out and bows last, period.
By rights, it should have been Mario Zeffiri, the Devereux, who bowed last on Monday night. But it was Sondra Radvanovsky—which, no slight to the tenor, everyone could understand.