NEW YORK (AP) — Portraying an aging, embittered Queen Elizabeth is hard work, but for Sondra Radvanovsky there’s a moment late in Donizetti’s opera “Roberto Devereux” that’s a real guilty pleasure.
“In the last scene, when I get into full chest voice and denounce Sarah and Nottingham, it’s a lot of fun,” the soprano said in an interview. The Tudor queen is blaming the couple for failing to save her beloved Roberto, the Earl of Essex, from the executioner’s ax.
“This woman is angry at everyone!” Radvanovsky said. “And I don’t sing many angry characters, because temperament is something that I’m still learning to control vocally. Temperament can really take a toll on the voice. It makes it tight, and then your technique just goes out the window and that’s when bad habits creep in.”
Opera fans can hear for themselves how well Radvanovsky negotiates the challenges when she stars in the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast on Saturday. The critics, by and large, judged her opening-night performance a triumph, with Justin Davidson writing in New York magazine that “she achieves with her voice all the wild freedom that her character is denied, and makes something splendid even of her ruthlessness and regret.”
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Her performance caps an historic accomplishment, making her the first singer ever at the Met to take on the lead roles in all three operas that comprise Donizetti’s so-called Tudor Trilogy. The last singer to do it in New York in a single season was Beverly Sills at the City Opera in the 1970s.
For Radvanovsky, Elizabeth in “Roberto” is more difficult than the title characters in the earlier operas, “Anna Bolena” and “Maria Stuarda.”
“It’s not long, but from beginning to end it’s probably the hardest of the three because of the physicality of playing an older woman at the end of her life, the emotion of it,” she said. “Also vocally it’s extremely demanding. This has the most coloratura singing of the three. My coach and I call it temperature-chart singing: You go up, you go down, you go up. … And to sing these huge outbursts, but still do it in the bel canto style and not the verismo style, it’s always a very tight line.”
THE SHADOW OF SILLS
Sills, reigning star of the New York City Opera at the time, sang all three works in the early 1970s, and her legendary performances are preserved on recordings. “I think her ‘Devereux’ is amazing, honestly,” Radvanovsky said. “Of the three, it’s the one she really captured. It was part of her personality, too, she loved the challenge.”
Yet it wasn’t necessarily the best fit for her voice.
“She had a lyric, very high-lying coloratura voice, probably best suited to the ‘Stuarda,’ with that elegant, lilting line,” Radvanovsky said.
Sills, who died in 2007, acknowledged that “Roberto Devereux” may have shortened her career. “Did it take a toll? Sure,” she said. “But that was because dramatically the role called for me to push down the voice a lot. That was my choice. I went into it with eyes wide open. I would do it all over again.”
DONIZETTI’S OTHER QUEENS
Though popularly known as a “trilogy,” the three operas were not written to be performed together. But Donizetti did compose them in historical sequence, starting with “Anna Bolena” in 1830, which recounts Henry VIII sending his wife Anne Boleyn — and mother of the future Queen Elizabeth — to her death so he can remarry. “Maria Stuarda” in 1834 depicts the death of the Scottish queen Mary Stuart at the hands of her cousin, Elizabeth, who in this opera plays only a supporting role. And “Roberto Devereux” in 1837 shows Elizabeth in old age losing her last chance for happiness.
For the record, there’s actually a fourth Donizetti opera in which Elizabeth appears, the rarely performed “Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth (Elizabeth at Castle Kenilworth),” composed in 1829.
WHERE TO SEE IT
The Met’s HD broadcast of “Roberto Devereux,” also starring tenor Matthew Polenzani in the title role, mezzo Elina Garanca as Sarah and baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as Nottingham, is conducted by Maurizio Benini and directed by David McVicar. It will be shown starting at 12:55 p.m. EDT on Saturday. A list of theaters can be found at the Met’s website: http://www.metopera.org/Season/In-Cinemas/Theater-Finder/. In the U.S., it will be repeated on Wednesday, April 20, at 6:30 p.m. local time.