Arts & Events

Radvanovsky Sensational in ROBERTO DEVEREUX;

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday September 15, 2018 - 02:45:00 PM

Last year, Sondra Radvanovsky was the darling diva of the Met, where she sang “the three queens”: the lead soprano roles in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux. Now she is the darling of San Francisco Opera, where she reprised her role as Queen Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux. Make no mistake about it: this was sensational singing, and, for that matter, it was also sensational acting. Sondra Radvanovsky not only sang the role brilliantly; she also brought to life the vain, aging Elizabeth, “the virgin queen,” who even in her 60s pursued love relations, all the more intense for being platonic, with the most interesting of the much younger men at her court. The Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, was only the latest and perhaps last in a long line of men upon whom Elizabeth exerted her charm, power, and emotionally intensity.  

Of course, Donizetti and his librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, took quite a few liberties with the plot. The real Devereux may perhaps have wandered far afield in his amours, but the opera features a totally fictional love affair between Devereux and Sara, his best friend’s wife. To make things even more complicated, Sara is Queen Elizabeth’s cousin and most trusted friend and confidante. Moreover, Sara’s husband, Duke of Nottingham, is both Devereux’s best friend and a close advisor to the Queen. Opera could hardly imagine a more complicated love triangle, or, in this case, a love quadrangle!  

In a production first mounted by the Canadian National Opera, director Stephen Lawless teamed with Set Designer Benoit Dugardyn to feature a unitary set based on Shakespeare’ Globe Theatre, and this set served, with minimal alterations, as England’s Parliament, Elizabeth’s intimate quarters, and the house of the Duke of Nottingham and his wife Sara. During the opera’s Overture, Lawless staged a pantomime offering a sort of comic book summary of Elizabeth’s reign, complete with toy sailboat gunships evoking the victorious combat of the British Navy under Sir Walter Raleigh versus the Spanish Armada in the inner reaches of the Thames.  

Whenever Sondra Radvanovsky was onstage, she absolutely dominated the proceedings. This was a surprisingly human Elizabeth: at times regal, yet at times vulnerable and unsure of where she stood with those whom she most estimed. Vocally, Sondra Radvanovsky was stupendous as Elizabeth! Her high notes were clearly and forcefully delivered, and her every phrase was sung with superb vocal control and dramatic intensity. This was a Queen Elizabeth for the ages, one on a par with that of the great Beverly Sills, or Montserrat Caballé, who sang this role in 1979 in San Francisco Opera’s only previous production of Roberto Devereux.  

Happily, Sondra Radvanovsky was joined in this Roberto Devereux by the same tried and true cast that accompanied her so beautifully in the 2014 San Francisco Opera production of Bellini’s Norma. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who sang Adalgisa in Norma, was here a most sympathetic Sara, singing beautifully and acting the troubled part for all it was worth. Tenor Russell Thomas, Norma’s Pollione, was Devereux; and he sang with exquisite tone, neither too light nor too hefty. Baritone Andrew Manea, a second-year Adler fellow, was a convincing Duke of Nottingham. He sang with tones that varied from limpid to dark and vehement as his character shifted from ardent support of Devereux to aggrieved husband and betrayed friend. Tenor Amitai Pati was a convincingly hostile Lord Cecil; and baritone Christian Pursell was a capable Sir Walter Raleigh.  

Conductor Riccardo Frizza led the Opera Orchestra in a superb performance of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. If at first the tempos seemed unusually slow, we soon began to realize that this is indeed how Donizetti wished this opera to proceed. Almost every number, aria, duet, or ensemble, starts out quite slowly. Sometimes, as in those moments when Queen Elizabeth suddenly explodes in wrath, the tempo suddenly jolts forward. However, many of this opera’s most moving numbers, as, for example, in the duet between Sara and Devereux that closes Act I, the tempo remains slow, deliberate, and immensely moving from beginning to end.