Met in HD: ‘Roberto Devereux’ gone but far from forgotten

Sondra Radvanovsky proved to be a Queen Elizabeth I for the ages in this lavish, spectacular Met in HD production.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta (Queen Elizabeth I) and Matthew Polenzani in the title role of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

WASHINGTON, April 22, 2016 – The New York Metropolitan Opera recently concluded its first-ever production of Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” this month, the final chapter of its single season trifecta, which included performances of all three of the composer’s Tudor Queen-based operas.

We recently attended a performance of “Devereux” at a local “Met in HD” Saturday simulcast and were impressed not only by its visual splendor but also by the superb talent of this production’s cast.

One of the interesting things about the Met’s opera simulcasts is that they tend to occur late in each opera’s run. That means that lucky local theater-goers are able to take in a performance where all (or most) of the kinks have been ironed out, where opening-night jitters are not likely to replicate, and when the singers are going all out to make sure the final impressions they leave behind with audiences are memorable.

That certainly seemed to be the case with the “Roberto Devereux” simulcast. A loosely adapted and highly romanticized take on the historical relationship—whatever it really was—between Queen Elizabeth I and her much-younger and notably mercurial courtier, Robert Devereux, Lord Essex, Donizetti’s opera features more drama and less bel canto ornamentation than many of his better known operas.

On the other hand, with its frequent, vicious swoops up and down the soprano range, “Devereux” is a tremendous showpiece for any soprano capable of handling the load, given that she is onstage and singing away for most of the opera.

Heroic soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sang the role of Elizabeth here, completing her season long Tudor three-bagger, having already sung the title roles in “Anna Bolena” and “Maria Stuarda” earlier. In the concluding opera of this trio, hers was a magnificent—and tragic—performance, mirroring the gradual decline of Elizabeth in her later years.

Better yet, unlike a classic diva of old, she allowed the Met’s costume and makeup artists go for it in creating the severe ravages of old age: a pancake white and withered visage; and, most cruelly in the final act, the unruly shock of wispy white hair revealed when her carefully groomed, red-tressed wig was removed. Her very appearance reveals the foolishness, the fondness and the weakness of this once bold Queen who is now forced to face the obvious: her powers and certainly her attractiveness and desirability are rapidly deserting her.

Sondra Radvanovsky as a rapidly aging Queen Elizabeth I in Donizetti's Roberto Devereux. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
Sondra Radvanovsky as a rapidly aging Queen Elizabeth I in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

It’s significant that this production is framed by similar tableaux that place Elizabeth’s elaborate tomb front and center during the overture and before the action begins, and again at this opera’s despairing close. Framed left and right by the symbolic characters of Time and Death, this vision of inevitable destiny marks both the Queen’s uncertain beginnings and her sad and dismal end, which in this opera occurs as she learns that even her own power to forgive Devereux—again—can no longer outrun inexorable Fate.

In the production just concluded, Sondra Radvanovsky clearly created an Elizabeth I for the operatic ages. It’s hard to imagine any soprano turning in a more vocally impressive and dramatically convincing performance than Ms. Radvanovsky offered in this Met production. Her vocal powers remained at their peak throughout this strenuous work, weakening only slightly near the closing moments of the final act.

Yet even here, that uncertainty, that “weakening,” was likely intentional, portraying a now pathetic Queen Elizabeth in a moment of complete emotional collapse. It was as powerful as it was moving, earning Ms. Radvanovsky a huge, rousing, standing ovation during her many curtain calls.

Ms. Radvanovsky’s Elizabeth is aided and abetted by a small but strong supporting cast that portrays the almost inevitable love triangle that ends up thwarting the Queen’s foolish romantic fantasies: Devereux, the Earl of Essex himself, sung with affecting passion by tenor Matthew Polenzani; his best friend (and later his worst enemy), the Duke of Nottingham (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien); and Nottingham’s wife Sarah (mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča), perhaps the most tragic character in the entire opera.

Sarah is one of the Queen’s closest confidantes in this version of the story, and, without a husband before the opera begins, has been persuaded by the Queen to marry the highly eligible Nottingham, who is madly in love with her even though she fails to return his devotion. That’s because she was, and still is, secretly in love with Essex, whom she had actually intended to marry, save for her knowledge that the Queen would be mightily displeased. The gradual revelation of this mess infuriates both Elizabeth and Nottingham leading to an inexorably tragic climax that none of the parties would ever have desired.

It’s for this reason that the role of Sarah is deeply affecting. In almost any plausible scenario, there’s no way out for her, and Ms. Garanča make splendid use of her richly-honeyed mezzo to portray her character’s wide range of desperate emotions. Hers was a finely nuanced and impressive performance, warmly received by the audience, as indeed it had to be.

As this opera’s duo of friends-turned-antagonists, Mr. Plenzani and Mr. Kwiecien, exciting and convincing as similar characters in the Met in HD’s earlier-in-the-season production of Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” (“Les Pêcheurs de Perles), pulled that sensation off again in this production.

Mr. Plenzani had by far the larger role in this opera, portraying its title character. But Donizetti’s opera gave him more of a change to express a wide array of emotions, ranging from love to duty to panic, and ultimately to his deep guilt for inadvertently betraying both Sarah and his best friend, even as he offended the Queen herself with his headlong impetuosity. His voice was both sweet and strong, lending a substantial emotional range to his troubled character.

While Mr. Kwiecien had less to do in this opera as Nottingham, this star Polish baritone made his presence felt, supporting his friend to the hilt even in an unpopular parliamentarian environment, but then viciously turning on him—and Sarah—when he uncovers their dual betrayal. These emotional reversals are often difficult to pull off in an opera. But, as in “Pearl Fishers,” Mr. Kwiecien was still able to make this emotional pivot believable and effective, delivering the goods with his clean, classic, signature baritone, a voice that is much in demand in today’s opera world.

The Met’s gloomy, doom-laden yet tragically effective production was created, produced and directed by Sir David McVicar, whose close-to-period sets gave this opera the kind of lavish, authentic ring that we used to regularly expect from grand opera.

Better still was the way-lavish Elizabethan-era costuming created by designer Moritz Junge. The outfits he created for Elizabeth seemed at times outrageously and almost humorously elaborate. Yet they very much echoed the similar extremes in court fashion that flourished during Elizabeth’s reign. Heaven knows what an entire court’s worth of similar costume cost the Met for this production. But the visuals, we think, were well worth it, effectively resurrecting this long-ago era of majesty and excess.

Maurizio Benini coaxed a nice performance out of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and chorus, although we must admit the singing of the soloists here was so phenomenal that we often overlooked the orchestral details.

At the conclusion of the opera’s performance, the audience erupted into an extended ovation. Perhaps even more interesting, so did many audience members in the close-to-full Northern Virginia AMC theater complex where we saw this HD performance. It’s rare when any “movie” audience stands up and cheers for a show. But that’s what happened here—and, we suspect, at many other theatrical venues around the world. The production was just that splendid.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

Sondra Radvanovsky as a rapidly aging Queen Elizabeth I in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.


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