Last Thursday night, the Metropolitan Opera roared with thunderous applause at the conclusion of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, the first ever presentation of the piece in the company’s history. Even more momentous, with this performance, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky completed her season-long journey of singing all three lead heroines in the composer’s “Tudor Trilogy.” To celebrate the occasion, the Met assembled an all-star cast to perform the work in an opulent new production by Scottish director Sir David McVicar.
With each outing in these roles, Radvanovsky has further asserted her mastery of vocal technique and dramatic interpretation, even if her large voice is not typical of the Bel Canto repertoire. In Roberto Devereux, she plays an aging Queen Elizabeth I, weary after a long reign on the British throne. As the opera opens, Elizabeth struggles to win the affection of the much younger Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who has secretly taken up with Sarah, Elizabeth’s close confidant and wife of the Duke of Nottingham. After Robert is convicted of treason, Elizabeth is determined to save him from punishment, but when the truth of his affair with Sara is revealed, her love turns to rage, and she instead signs the death warrant that seals his – and her – fate.
Radvanovsky’s singing was even more polished than in past performances, characteristically combining prodigious sound with razor-sharp high notes while still carefully massaging the role’s lyrical phrases. As always, the soprano was especially moving when effortlessly floating sustained pianissimi, and with increasingly unhinged physicality, Radvanovsky conveyed Elizabeth’s descent into despair and resignation. Hers was a masterful portrayal that deserved the prolonged ovations it received, but in future performances Radvanovsky could bring a touch more grit to the interpretation and achieve even greater impact.
Nearly two decades after his Met debut, tenor Matthew Polenzani’s talent is being rewarded with some of opera’s most coveted leading roles; he likewise succeeded as the conflicted title character. Bringing a tone that has become rounder and more tender with age, Polenzani’s singing was both warm and insistent, and he capped ardent lines with robust top notes. Unfortunately though, Polenzani lost his stamina during his final impassioned aria, only cautiously concluding a triumphant night.
With a creamy mezzosoprano colored by just the right amount of smokiness, Elīna Garanča imbued her portrayal of Sara with great sympathy and expressivity. Up against the exceptional performances of his colleagues, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien’s portrayal of Nottingham was underwhelming. While Kwiecien often brings a wealth charisma to his performances, this outing felt unnaturally forced and was not aided by wooden singing.
McVicar has set the world of Roberto Devereux in the claustrophobic confines of a Jacobean theater that is filled with stunning visuals. The set, designed by McVicar himself, features black wooden walls, gilded ornaments, and imposing viewing galleries that drip with the trademark grandeur of the Tudor court and is enhanced by Paule Constable’s cinematic lighting. Especially noteworthy are the sumptuous costumes by Moritz Junge that utterly transform these modern singers into Elizabethan nobility. Unfortunately, McVicar’s direction did not match the lavish production values, with much of the onstage movement marked by unmotivated action devoid of any real emotional urgency.
Under Maurizio Benini’s baton, the first scene of the opera was thrilling; here each singer performed at his or her vocal and dramatic best. But this energy waned in the scenes that followed. In key moments, Benini chose uncomfortable tempi, and his sluggish pacing of Act 2 robbed the opera’s exhilarating showdown between Elizabeth, Nottingham, and Robert of much of its intensity. Eventually, the performance re-found its vigor with riveting final scenes by Radvanovsky and Polenzani, but this was not enough to save the evening from an overall sense of inconsistency.
In all, this performance, which was loaded with great potential, only partially delivered on expectations. Thanks to three strong vocal performances and attractive aesthetics, Columbia students will still find this an engaging night at the opera. Hopefully, with subsequent performances, the weaker elements can rise to meet these high standards.
Performances of Roberto Devereux continue through April 19 with the April 16 matinee performances being broadcast into movie theaters live in high definition and presented for free on 105.9 FM WQXR. More information can be found online at the Met’s website.