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Sondra Radvanovsky at the Met

On January 29th, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky returned to the Metropolitan Opera to continue her season-long journey tackling Gaetano Donizetti’s “Tudor Trilogy.” With performances as Anne Boleyn behind her, Radvanovsky appeared as the controversial Mary, Queen of Scotts, in “Maria Stuarda.” Even more than Anne Boleyn, this role sits particularly well in the soprano’s robust voice, and she masterfully claimed another success with an impassioned portrayal of the willful heroine.

“Maria Stuarda” picks up the Tudor saga during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and traces the bitter rivalry between the English monarch and her rebellious cousin from the north. Throughout, Mary’s fate rests entirely with Elizabeth. When the opera opens, the Scottish queen has already been imprisoned due to a failed attempt to take the British throne. After the exhortation of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth agrees to visit Mary – a meeting purely invented for the stage – to consider pardoning her actions.

Things take a turn for the worse, however, when, outraged by Elizabeth’s offenses, Mary hurls insults at the queen. After a heated confrontation, Mary’s hopes of forgiveness are dashed, and she spends the remainder of the opera awaiting execution. The piece is loaded with fiery encounters as well as ruminations on the tortured psyche of great leaders, always resulting in impactful musical writing.

With this appearance, Radvanovsky again held the audience in her grasp for the entirety of the performance. The tone of her voice may not be conventionally beautiful, but, with deft control, she carefully crafts every phrase. And while her precise runs and shimmering top notes always excite, it is her breathtakingly polished pianissimi phrases that have the power to stop time. For this role, Radvanovsky refined the roughness and grit of her Anne Boleyn and instead presented a far more restrained and contemplative interpretation that only occasionally exploded in fierce outbursts.

Mary’s reserved dignity was balanced by the imposing fury of Queen Elizabeth, sung on this occasion by South African soprano Elza van den Heever. In the middle of her range, van den Heever’s timbre can sometimes sound waxy and coarse, but it still manages to blossom into plush high notes at the upper reaches of her instrument. Her characterization of this iconic ruler was also quite compelling, as she presented the Elizabeth’s dual personae – both her outward intensity and inner turmoil

Making his Met debut, tenor Carlo Albelo as Robert Dudley, sang with a thin, nasal sound that fortunately grew fuller and more ardent after the intermission. Both Kwangchul Youn and Patrick Carfizzi brought rich, sonorous bass-baritones to their parts as George Talbot and William Cecil respectively. Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza capably marshaled the musical forces, but ultimately the night belonged to Radvanovsky.

The gripping drama of “Maria Stuarda” built to the striking final scene when, after grappling with her past demons, Mary bids her faithful subjects and Robert, her true love, and farewell before resolutely going to her death. It is a fitting end to this riveting opera, and David McVicar’s arresting production complements the drama at every turn. Columbia students following Radvanosky’s portrayal of the “Three Queens” will not be disappointed by this latest installment, but the opera itself offers enough historical intrigue and vocal pyrotechnics to enthrall novice operagoers and Anglophiles alike.

Performances of “Maria Stuarda” run through February 20 when the opera will be broadcast live on 105.9 WQXR at 1pm. More information can be found online at www.metopera.org.

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