Cher Public

I want your Essex

Devereux 1During its first-ever Roberto Devereux Thursday evening one felt transported back to the Volpe years: four of the Met’s biggest stars shining in an opulent (if occasionally perverse) but reassuringly non-challenging production paid for by Sybil B. Harrington. Unfortunately, Sondra Radvanovsky, Elina Garanca, Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien were consistently undermined by the shockingly aimless conducting of Maurizio Benini, and so the gala premiere turned out to be less than the sum of its impressive parts. 

Donizetti’s darkly grim opera about the aged Queen Elizabeth I’s deluded passion for the dashing—and decades younger—Earl of Essex rounded out the Met’s so-called “Tudor Trilogy” all produced by Sir David McVicar. In fact, it was a gift from the Harrington Endowment Fund that made possible McVicar’s seventh Met show in seven years, the first for which he served as his own scenic designer.

The generally vivid and intense interaction between the four principals displayed his gift for bringing out the best in his cast, but having chorus members clustered on each side of the stage throughout the evening observing, silently commenting upon, and even applauding the opera’s searing private interactions was downright odd.

Initially Elizabeth’s glowing white marble tomb dominated his handsome black and gold symmetrical unit-set which featured narrow arcades topped by matching balconies at each side. It was to those areas that the chorus retreated after promenading on and then turning to glare at the swanky audience during the overture. The action was played out front-and-center as in a play-within-a-play—for no apparent reason.

In fact, after Elisabetta’s final cabaletta ended, the cast bowed first to the applauding chorus onstage before turning to the enthusiastic audience in the house. For a director who claims to have little patience for concepts, McVicar couldn’t resist imposing a discordant one that didn’t make much sense.

That said, he drew grandly outsized portrayals from his lead quartet, in particular Garanca and Polenzani, The Latvian mezzo nearly stole the show in the relatively short role of Sarah, the restless, dissatisfied wife of the Duke of Nottingham whose unrequited yearning for Devereux precipitates his eventual beheading. I hadn’t heard her since La Clemenza di Tito in late 2012, and since then the voice has grown enormously—particularly its now thrilling top—while retaining its signature smoky opulence.
Devereux 4From her entrance clad in one of Moritz Junge’s most strikingly luxurious Elizabethan gowns, she vividly conveyed the Duchess’s desperate fear for Roberto’s safety in her desolate opening aria. I’ve never paid much attention to Sarah in the past but Garanca made her impossible to ignore, singing with imposing grandeur and surging longing, particularly in her convulsively furtive duet with Devereux.

Polenzani, as Garanca’s thwarted paramour and the Queen’s doomed love-object, gave a surprisingly flamboyant performance. Always appreciated for his scrupulous musicality, the Met regular is taken for granted by some as a bland, ever-dependable performer. But recently he has been going from strength to strength. His exquisitely haunted Nadir dominated this season’s new Les Pêcheurs de Perles, and his virile and fiery Devereux made one understand why he had caused at least two women to lose their senses.

Without an ideally glamorous or individual timbre, Polenzani sang with a melting legato and threw in a few thrilling interpolated high notes. However, it became increasingly clear that he was not operating at 100%. He finally ran out of steam toward the end of his demanding prison scena and got through the final cabaletta by sheer dint of will.

However, surely no one felt short-changed by such a generous and committed portrayal. After his simple, moving Nemorino (so different from Grigolo’s current ego-spree at the Met) and his ardent Leicester in Maria Stuarda three years ago, Polenzani has evolved into one of today’s top bel canto tenors.

Dare one hope that he will be Pollione in the Met’s upcoming McVicar Norma next year? He could surely hold his own opposite the expected high-gauge fire-power of Anna Netrebko and Joyce Di Donato. In the meantime, his Fernand opposite Garanca’s Léonor in Munich’s La Favorite will no doubt be one of this fall’s highlights.

Devereux 2
That Favorite’s Alphonse XI, Kwiecien gave another of his recent frustratingly uneven performances as Nottingham. As he had in Pêcheurs on New Year’s Eve, he performed his aria admirably—with burnished tone and suave phrasing. But elsewhere he barked and forced and woofed his high notes.

He reveled in the Duke’s particularly intense, touchy-feely connection to Devereux and one surmised he felt more betrayed by him than by his wife. Kwiecien’s over-the-top drunken antics in the third act suggested Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and drew muffled titters from the audience. Happily next season at the Met he returns where he belongs–Don Giovanni in April 2017.

I can’t have been the only one who had real doubts about Radvanovsky’s suitability when it was announced several years ago that she would be tackling the three iconic Tudor roles at the Met. While I had appreciated her recent Norma there, that’s a role sung by many different kinds of sopranos—one remembers other Met Normas like Maria Guleghina and Marina Mescheriakova with chagrin. But Donizetti’s queens have mostly been the province of specialists, as one can sample in Niel Rishoi’s excellent survey of Roberto Devereux.

After a rocky beginning with Anna Bolena during the season’s opening week, Radvanovsky made believers out of many, particularly with her near-universally acclaimed Maria Stuarda. In it she successfully tempered her voice’s glaring harshness and sang most movingly with spellbinding legato and an impressive display of coloratura, trills and pianissimo high notes.

Even before she first tackled the role in Toronto, the common wisdom was that Devereux’s Elisabetta would be Radvanovsky’s best role of the three queens. Based on Thursday’s premiere, I’m not so sure, but it’s entirely possible that, like Polenzani, she was not at her best.

Devereux 3A lot of the hard glare had returned to her huge, glinting soprano, particularly during her first-act aria and cabaletta where she seemed peculiarly tentative. Things improved in her tortured duet with Polenzani in which he matched her high note for high note in its thrilling final pages.

In embracing bel canto Radvanovsky has become particularly adept at its most plaintive arias, hence her success in Stuarda. The downside proved that she was less convincing portraying Elisabetta-as-virago, and the usually crackling second-act confrontation with Devereux and Nottingham fizzled failing to make its usual impact despite her decidedly aggressive use of chest voice.

After a long and tiring first half (both the first and second act), Radvanovsky rallied for a most moving final scene. As has apparently become the norm, she doffed her elaborate wig and, like a balding wizened Marschallin, began “Vivi ingrato” staring into the mirror on her dressing table.

Although less risible than Elza van den Heever’s doddering manic Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda, McVicar’s vision of Devereux’s Elisabetta was frustratingly inconsistent. To become the Elizabeth of the time of the Essex scandal, Radvanovsky was decked out in heavy, elaborate make-up and trembled about on a cane.

But as Donizetti’s opera has little, if anything, to do with real English history, why the oppressive preoccupation with depicting the aging queen in physical decline? While at times Radvanovsky seemed barely able to cross the stage without leaning heavily on her cane, for much of long final scene she stood commandingly erect and unaided at the center of the stage.

For her previous two Donizetti portrayals, Radvanovsky successfully battled recent local memories of Netrebko and Angela Meade as Anna and Di Donato as Maria, and ordinarily she would have had Elisabetta all to herself. But two years ago Mariella Devia returned to New York after an absence of 15 years for a revelatory Devereux Elisabetta.

Thinking back to Devia’s stylish performance, I realized what I most missed in Radvanovsky’s earnest Virgin Queen. Throughout Thursday’s performance one was always aware of the hard work, the sheer industrious effort that Radvanovsky had devoted to the enterprise. The end result was mightily impressive but it lacked the spontaneity and (apparently) effortless élan of Devia whose command of bel canto has remained supreme for over 30 years.

Although Radvanovsky may have been nervous and/or exhausted from the long rehearsal process and challenged by the burdensome make-up and gowns, she may gradually find her way to become a more complete Elisabetta. If so, it won’t be thanks to any help from the pit, as Benini’s conducting was one of the worst things I’ve heard at the Met in years.

He rushed through a crazily fast overture like the local bandmaster in Bergamo, then every cavatina meandered and nearly fell apart. While there were occasional exciting moments along the way, the concluding dirge-like “Quel sangue versato” was dragged out unconscionably.

Perhaps he was just over-indulging his singers, but more likely he conveys no innate feel for Donizetti’s arching bel canto lines. For nearly 20 years Benini has been in charge of numerous ottocento works at the Met but this disappointingly inert Devereux must be his weakest effort yet, and one now fears for next season’s eagerly anticipated I Puritani with Diana Damrau and Javier Camarena.

Photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

  • Thanks for the great review as always, Christopher. And thanks also for being so quick about it — just a half-day after the performance!

  • SilvestriWoman

    I haven’t heard Polenzani, so maybe I shouldn’t judge, but I did see Bryan Hymel in Chicago’s Anna Bolena. If I were in charge of the Met, I’d have bought out his existing contracts, and cast him opposite Radvanovsky. In this rep, he’s probably peerless, and he and Rad have lovely chemistry. Though she’d started out fine, once she was singing with Hymel, she seemed to up her game, big time.

  • almavivante

    Indeed, Kwiecien’s body language strongly suggested a more-than-just-friends attachment to Essex, and his drunken rage at learning that his wife is his rival for Essex’s affection was an intriguing interpretation. It’s not in the score (you wouldn’t have picked this up from the broadcast), and it’s not something I would have previously imagined was going on in the text, but as the role was played, the duke’s attraction to Essex was made surprisingly plausible: foreheads touching, shoulders grasped in semi-embrace. And, intentionally or not, it made more telling the opera’s title: the other three principals are in love with the fourth, the title character. Usually such directorial choices seem frivolous or irrelevant to me, but this one struck a believable note.

    • Alto

      What a pleasure to read such a measured comment. I’m an ocean away and am completely persuaded by your argument.

    • brackweaver

      Thanks. Now I understand some of the comments made last night. Actually, the behavior you describe between the men is straight out of a Brazilian telenovela!

    • jackoh

      If only Corelli were here this would have been instantly believable.

  • guy pacifica

    I agree with Guatier M.’s comments on the earlier RD thread that Rad’s inability to fully inhabit these queenly personalities has something to do with her need to “concentrate on vocal emission or bad stuff will happen.”

    That, and then there’s this, from a Jan. 28 NY Times article on Radvan’s upcoming run of Donizetti queens:

    “Another challenge has been keeping her queens straight — and making sure that when she is in the middle of her florid ornaments and cadenzas, singing dizzying curlicues of notes, she does not get lost and suddenly plunge into a passage that rightly belongs to another queen.

    “It’s really difficult, because the music is so similar,” she said. “The characters are completely different, but the music itself is all boom chick-chick, boom chick-chick.”

    What I found lacking in Rad’s interpretation is the specificity necessary to make these characters precise and believable as real people. Not being able to keep the queens straight is kind of a problem if you’re trying to embody them as compelling, deeply human characters.

    Shortly after reading that story in the Times, I first viewed Devia’s recent account of RD’s final scene. Whatever else you might think of Devia’s vocal estate, there amazing specificity to her singing and acting here. I don’t think she has any trouble remembering which queen she is singing.

    • guy pacifica

      Oh, wait, I was looking for the recording of Devia’s RD that Coloraturfan had posted but that’s not it. It must have been taken down. This is a better recording than the one I posted above:

  • danpatter

    Great review, thanks for posting. Pity none of the Tudor Trilogy was never done by the Met for Caballe or Sutherland back in the day, but it’s nice the Met finally got round to it, and at least we did have Sills at her greatest next door. I’m a Rad fan, and I look forward to seeing this “at the cinema.”

    • Rowna

      And Rowna from Pittsburgh chimes in as well. Well maybe not as informed as Mr. Corwin, or as entertaining and knowledgeable as Mr. Jorden, but in my own style:

      • Camille

        Dear Rowna,
        You have made many very sage deductions and I would like to compliment your ability to deduce what transpired on the stage based solely upon hearing the broadcast alone. Much of it is in sync with what I witnessed from the second row of orchestra.

        Mr Polenzani was visibly worn looking when he began that mezza forte crooning business in the cavatina section of his final prison scene. Before then, he had managed to muster up a great deal of male bravado and brio in all his scenes and had made a far more forceful impression (for me) than is his usual wont. In the cabaletta he looked as though he knew it wasn’t coming off so well and he subtly communicated that much, at least as far as to the second row of orchestra. Therefore, the lack of applause was not arbitrary, there was some reason for the restraint. Sorry about it and I am certain he will recover and adjust his performance in the coming repetitions. The SWEAT on his face and Kwiecien, who noticeably had a couple small cracks in his opening number, was noticeable. They were all highly professional but the pressure had to be enormous. Garanca, with her famously cool as a cucumber temperament proved to be the only one who seemed entirely unflappable, due in part to that utter assurance she maintains both vocally and technically, and her physical assertiveness and athleticism. Brava!

        Would you be referring to “rubato” in your reference to ‘playing around with the tempo’?? At least I am guessing so and yes it was not all it could have been. As well, the thought occurred to me that the opera was entitled Roberto Devereux because, in those times, there was a barely twenty years old vehicle by Rossini in circulation, his Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, one of his wife’s specialty operas, and may have precluded the use of the title of the character which is, for all practical purposes, the true center and protagonist of this work. Or, at least, this could be the case, I am only conjecturing.

        You have good ears, Rowna, and I do hope you will be able to attend the HD broadcast and elaborate further. Miss Garanca is an unalloyed joy--pure platinum. I wish that she would bring her Léonor in La Favorite to the Met, and then I could die happy!

        Most importantly, I LUV your necklace. It is so cute for springtime and the perfect little flourish with basic black. Remembering that I liked another one, in turquoise, some time ago. And also, if I may be so impertinent, your glasses look great!! Maybe I shall get some reading glasses like those as mine have just been stepped on! O infamia!

        Ciao for now and keep on, keeping on.
        Your admirer,

    • phoenix

      Bravo Cieca!

    • Niel Rishoi

      Glad some else noticed the “homage” paid to Sills, Gencer, and Caballé. At several points throughout, “borrowed bits.”

  • javier

    Why you guys gotta be do mean?

  • phoenix

    ‘… Radvanovsky successfully battled recent local memories of Netrebko … and Di Donato … .”
    -- Really?

  • aulus agerius

    Isn’t it silly that the tenor and baritone wear those costumes and go on with their very 2016 haircuts and facial hair??

  • aulus agerius

    I didn’t care for any of the singing with the exception of Gar anca and only listened up to the intermission. But this is far from my favorite opera. Of the 3 opera highlighted Stuarda is my personal favorite.

  • Tamerlano

    Have we discussed this? Is that Alexandra Deshorties? She sounds terrible but she acts a storm.

    • That would be Alexandra Deshorties, yes.

  • Angelo Saccosta

    Excellent review, Christopher, as always. Thank you. You have hit the nail on the head in every comment, especially about the effort that seems to be required of Sandra just to get to the end of the opera, whether this one or Bolena, and about about the utterly terrible conducting of Benini.
    Keep up the good work, Chris. you are a joy to read.

  • WindyCityOperaman

    After Beverly . . . no one

    BTW looking at the photos from the Met production, does the stage direction have some kind of “thing” for face touching?

    • Idk I think this is pretty great:

      • PCally

        Thanks Ivy, that’s such a fantastic clip. Frankly, I think Devia is much finer than Sills at making an essentially lyric instrument work in this role.

    • CwbyLA

      what amazing acting, commitment and singing from Beverly Sills! Thank you for posting this.

  • Donna Anna

    Tomassini’s review describes McVicar setting the opera as a play within a play. He did the same thing for “Manon” and to great effect. Doesn’t sound like it happened here. On just about every other count, you and Mr. T disagree. As Bette Midler would say, quelle surprise.

    • He did the same for Adriana Lecouvreur, which sort of worked given the artificiality of the opera’s premise. The video with Angela and Jonas is wonderful.

  • Niel Rishoi

    Excellent, finely detailed review, Christopher, and thank you for the mention of my survey.

    The outcome/results of Radvanovsky’s performance, based on experience of listening to her, was about (with all due respect) exactly what I had envisioned: success in the slow, lyrical portions of the music that require just that soft-toned approach; but variable results in recitativo, declamatory moments, and difficult passagework.

    I elaborated on this issue here before, and will do so again.

    It may be that Rad’s manner of vocal production is synergistic with some of the less successful aspects of her singing.

    Her way of singing is basically laryngeal. She must have very strong, thick vocal cords to withstand singing almost exclusively in this fashion. Singing laryngeally as opposed to? The terms I’m about to use here are controversial -- “placement,” singing “in the mask” -- but I can’t think of any better way to proceed, so here it goes.

    Singing with focus in the “resonators” imparts a brilliant, pin-point tone that projects: think Ponselle, Flagstad, Nilsson. It allows vowels to be produced in the same “space,” and imparts clarity and tonal color to the integrity of each vowel, especially the much-desired Italian ones.

    Radvanovsky’s vocal production is mainly laryngeal, to my ears. One of the few giveaways is the color of the vowels in several parts of the voice. When she sings a word like “furore” it comes out like “furori,” because the proper “eh”, on the E flat at the bottom of the staff, is very difficult to give the right sonority with a laryngeal voice production; so an “eee” sound is substituted.

    Another giveaway of her vocal production are her variable forte highs. Most of those above the staff are constricted and hard rather than brilliant and pingy. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to “sail out” a high note from the throat -- hence the yelped high D the other night. Doing so in this manner tightens the vocal cords. When they do come out, Rad hooks heavily on them from below, and the note is tightly driven up.

    However, that laryngeal production is ideal for the floating soft tone, which Rad does effortlessly. Ricciarelli, in her recording of Suor Angelica, on the high C in “Lodiam!”, is a perfect example of this: a beautifully poised, floated tone -- it’s all laryngeal, what they refer to as a “head tone.” But she too, had trouble with forte notes on high, especially as she got older; and she didn’t have the big full tone by nature that Rad has.

    But there’s more. That grainy, gauzy tone that Rad has in the upper-middle, that sometimes turns into a flutter, often veers to the underside of the pitch. That is because the diffuseness of the vowels, synergistic with how she produces her tone, disallows a firm *centering*, a precise zeroing in to the bulls-eye of the pitch. When she exercises more care in this regard, it is nearer to the note value, but the sense that people have of something not firmly centered is a frequent one.

    And yet, you hear examples of how she CAN do it. When she sang “Non ami” in the duet with Roberto, Rad produced an effectively “chesty” sound, and though the effect sounded a bit tacked-on, it fully made its maximal impact. Yet, throughout, in “Alma infida,” and in the bottom notes of other phrases, you’ll hear a vacillation between a diffuse lower note, and a more pungent one; and this varies according to the vowel within the word.

    In my view, the collective listening of her work has led me to drawing these conclusions -- which is, consistency in her INconsistencies.

    Radvanovsky’s voice is, indisputably, a very great one, one for the ages: but I do not feel she has a maximal grasp on how to use it. She gives the allusion of doing so, and acquits herself well enough to the point of having an outrageously successful international career.

    To hear the difference between the laryngeal singing approach and the resonant one, here again is Anna Pirozzi’s account of the final scene, in her first outing as Elisabetta:

    All is not perfect in Pirozzi’s singing here; it is a first-time account, with issues still not firmly coalesced.

    What’s important here, though, are several factors.

    Her birthright in the role is immediately established: the clarity of the tone, with its nearly perfect-integrity vowel formations, the cleanly limned consonants, the authenticity of the architecture of the language allied with the patterns of the text -- she’s the real thing.

    Crucial, here, though, is the brilliance of her tonal production -- forward, pingy, and alive with color and that essential halo of resonance around the gleam of her sound. The cavatina is well-bound, sensitive, and beautifully nuanced, with superb dynamic control. The cabaletta is astoundingly fluent, graceful, rhythmically definite, and not at all heavy footed. She does those repeated, accented high Bs with clean separation (this is a trouble spot for many) and little sense of strain.

    I have no hesitation in saying this is the absolutely right voice for Donizetti’s Elisabetta -- perhaps more right than any other before her in this time span.

    • Camille

      This is very much appreciated as I have yet to find an intelligent discussion of the vocal matters at hand in the much discussed and debated Radvanovsky voice. Just saying “I hate it” or, “I love it” doesn’t mean a thing and doesn’t require much more than a kneejero reaction. This, coupled with your other explanatory information on the various exponents of the role will be of much use in an attempt to eliminate my forty-five year old dismissal of this opera.

      As well, might I ask what you think of Mr Riggs list of “assoluta” roles, this, I believe being one of them--the others are Gemmy di Vergy, Anna Bolena, Norma, Rezia, Lady Macbeth, Abigaille, and a couple others I’ve forgotten? If you do not care to discuss this matter, that’s fine.

      Thanks very much. As ‘the noctambulist’ said elsewhere, some of the music takes a bit of repetition of hearing to warm up to and I think that is beginning to be just the case for me.

      Thank you very, very much. Very helpful.

      • Camille

        “knee jerk reaction”,
        Sorry, just like my own.

      • I always appreciate Niel Rishoi’s contributions. In reading over his previous overview on Roberto Devereux (, I also have to agree with his estimation that the role of Queen Elisabetta is very possibly even more demanding than that of Norma.

        Yours is a worthwhile question, Camille, as to any alternate takes — including Niel Rishoi’s — on the list of “assoluta” roles generated in the Assoluta Voice book. I freely own up to having concluded that Elisabetta is not only somewhat more demanding than the role of Norma but may well be the single most vocally demanding role ever conceived for a prima donna. Naturally, every singer is a little different and what is relatively harder for one may be relatively easier for another. But on balance, I’ve concluded that the overall requirements in Elisabetta’s music are simply the most unremittingly tricky, on the whole, ever devised for the female voice. And that group includes the Cherubini Medee, the Rossini Armida, Reiza in Oberon, Anna Bolena, Norma, Gemma di Vergy, Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux, Abigaille in Nabucco and the Verdi Lady Macbeth.

        I too look forward to any thoughts that Mr. Rishoi may have on your query, and I do encourage him to be entirely candid in spotlighting any problems that he may have with some of the assessments of “assoluta” repertoire in the book.

        I was also struck by the mention, in Christopher Corwin’s review at the top, of the occasion when Mariella Devia took on this daunting role at Carnegie Hall. Although it was an effective and generally stylish performance of the role, I don’t recall it as being necessarily flawless (not that Mr. Corwin explicitly claims it was). There were a few compromises taken, but I’ve never heard this terrifying role done without a few of those anyway, so Devia is hardly to be singled out for that.

        I came across my immediate take on her Elisabetta two days after that Carnegie evening. So I figured it might be useful if I append it here. I should make it clear that all I had managed to hear at that point of Radvanovsky’s reading of the role was her final cabaletta in Toronto as seen in a murky video on YouTube.


        Devia was uneven, but good when at her best. Her voice is not a pleasing sound now, but it’s handled really musically.

        After a cloudy start, the cavatina was handled suavely, and the first of three trills (all in the one phrase) was perfectly good, but the second (in the low) was virtually nonexistent, and the third (back up higher) was there, but not as clear as the first. The following cabaletta was maybe the best singing of the whole evening: She did the whole cabaletta uncut! Sills and Harris are the only ones who do that — until last night. — And Devia did it elegantly, musically and expressively. The quality of the sound itself was still a bit burpy in places, the legato not always there (although the center of every tone was still there), and so on. But it was an authentically musical and expressive job of singing. — And every single one of the six high Cs in the uncut aria was dead on, while all the intricate passagework boasted both precision and spring. Quite brilliant! She was very cautious in the confrontations with Costello, though, both in Act I and Act II. In Act II, one was also more aware that her middle notes frequently get lost in so much ensemble writing. That and Queler’s more tepid conducting than earlier took their toll, and the second act failed to catch fire.

        The last scene had her other great moment: the cavatina, which was spun out really beautifully. She has enormously long breath. This was showcased in this “Vivi ingrato” more than anywhere else. It was quite astonishing. The only caveat was the long downward phrase repeating “m’abbandona in eterno a sospirar”. No one sings this single phrase as a single phrase in the way it’s written: Not Caballe, not Sills, not Gencer, not Miricioiu, not Harris, not Rowland, not anyone. — And not Devia either: she takes it in two, breathing before “in eterno”. Maybe Radvanovsky is the first one who will take it in one, but ……… er ……… uh …………. I’m not holding my breath . The final cabaletta lost effectiveness because of all the middle notes which were practically inaudible where we were sitting. In the end, she must have transposed at least half a dozen low notes up an octave. Her interpolated high D at the end was longer than Radvanovsky’s in Toronto (or Sills’s at Wolftrap) and really rang through the hall. It was an exciting and worthwhile luxury, and she and the audience wallowed in it. Quite a sound — especially for a 66-year-old singer!

        • Camille

          Yes sir--that “D” in alt is ringing in sempiternum, so splendid it was!
          Thank you SO much for providing this information, very deeply appreciated!
          For long now, have I had the intention of reading your book but just haven’t succeeded in doing so--now with the advent of this production and what would seem to be an opportunity to discuss the “Assoluta”, otherwise known as the “sfogato” voice--(and my goodness this role certainly is terrifying in scope!)—I may finally find my way to getting to this book.

          Yes, I had forgotten Médée and Armida--shame on me, how could I? What I wiuld love to know is what are the criteria upon which you base the decisions of rating these roles as you do? Are you sourcing original theatrical categorizations from the time of those compositions? Is it an analysis of the pages of intricate writing and of how many the singer must cope with and in contrasting styles of singing? The many different intricate types of ornaments and/or their proper execution and their respective difficulties? It seems arbitrary on the surface of the matter but there must be some sort of guidelines, or are there?

          As for Signora Devia, I looked upon it as a sort of magnificent singing lesson from a real mistress of song and did not concentrate on the obviously drier quality and thickening of the sound. She still managed so well and, at times, so brilliantly, it hardly mattered. Never having the opportunity to have heard her at her deluxe prime, it was just wonderful to have witnessed her once in my life.

          In any event, thank you so kindly for participating in this discussion, as it could be a highly appropriate time to have one on the type of soprano known as “Assoluta”. Guess I had best buy the score but I hope it does not scare me the way the one to Gemma di Vergy did--it was positively vertiginous--so intricate and complex the writing for Gemma!

          Thanks, once more.

          • Hi Camille —

            You ask good questions, and they require a somewhat detailed answer.

            Actually, as I explain in the book, the term Assoluta is admittedly a modern extrapolation from two different terms that developed in the years since the heyday of the premieres of these fearsome parts rather than contemporaneously with them: “prima donna assoluta” and “soprano assoluta”.

            “Prima donna assoluta” came to mean merely the hierarchical position of the highest-paid most prominently featured Diva of a given opera company. She could be any vocal category, very often a soprano, but not always (for instance, Mme. Stolz, who ruled the roost for a while at the Paris Opera, was a mezzo).

            On the other hand, “soprano assoluta” was a term that came to be applied over time to any soprano who could tackle successfully the dramatic coloratura roles of the first half of the 19th century. It was a term in common usage primarily in the twentieth century.

            However, the problem with using “Prima donna assoluta” as the designation for the roles we’re discussing here lies in the fact that those roles have certain common vocal/technical characteristics, while “Prima donna assoluta” can reference any vocal type, theoretically.

            “Soprano assoluta” would seem the more appropriate term, since it at least seems to reference a specific vocal type. However, analysis of the creators of these roles reveals that they were habitually in a minority among their colleagues in that they made a point of alternating soprano and mezzo roles equally, with dizzying frequency.

            For a while, twentieth-century assumptions even took that kind of alternation as somehow typical of nineteenth-century casting. But its frequency on closer inspection has been exaggerated. In fact, one of the reasons why the creators of these daunting roles acquired such huge fame was precisely the rarity with which Divas would tackle roles of such variety. Yet this tiny handful did just that. Yes, there were more such artists then than there are today. But they were still in a minority even then. Otherwise, Stendhal would not have written of Pasta’s “unusual capacity to sing both soprano and mezzo”. If they had not been in a minority even then, Stendhal would not have used the word “unusual”.

            Clearly, the immense fame they acquired has given us a somewhat distorted picture of typical casting practices of the day. For every Pasta, every Ronzi, every Colbran, there were in fact hundreds of singers who hewed to very specific vocal categories day in and day out. But we know more about the Pastas and the Ronzis etc. simply because they garnered more attention. Hence that has skewed our perspective of those times.

            These roles, then, were created by Divas who eschewed traditional vocal categories altogether. They were written precisely to exploit this bewildering ambiguity. They were conceived neither as soprano nor as mezzo but as monstrous hybrids to suit the particular vocal phenomenon for whom each of them was designed. That is why even the term “soprano assoluta” would also be misleading, since it suggests a category of soprano, whereas the reality is that these terrifying roles emerged as lying somewhere outside either soprano or mezzo. Since “soprano assoluta” would therefore be a misleading term, just the term Assoluta by itself seems the most efficient way of designating this sort of monstrous hybrid.

            When we look at the vocal details of the careers of those select few who do feature apparent points of contact with the Pasta “mold” (if we can even use that word), highly select names emerge, like Scio, Colbran, Paton, Ronzi, etc. In addition, many, though not all, the roles written for these divas, both before and after Norma, do exhibit striking points of contact with Norma, which was written for Pasta and which is universally viewed as an encyclopedic role, transcending typical vocal fachs. That is why Norma is a good starting point for this survey.

            Upon even closer scrutiny, a remarkably uniform set of characteristics can be perceived among nine of these roles in particular.

            I like to stress this latter point so we can keep in mind that I allowed those points of contact to emerge of themselves in the course of surveying which roles most matched the Norma/Pasta “mold”. This procedure was adopted instead of arbitrarily deciding beforehand what those features “should be” and then arbitrarily looking for roles that would match those attributes. The latter would have been much too subjective a procedure. Instead, I wanted whichever roles were most similar to Norma to dictate for me which characteristics were to be given priority in helping to define a common type.

            Those characteristics then emerged with startling clarity:

            1) sequences with fioritura singing in the most intricate bel canto tradition
            2) sequences with florid singing combined with heroic weight
            3) sequences with an implicitly heavy or dense sound in the lower range
            4) sequences with vocal power over an energetic orchestral accompaniment
            5) sequences with widely varying tessitura: the alternation of extended sequences whose tessitura lies quite low with those lying quite high
            6) at least one lengthy sequence during which the character dominates the stage
            7) a range extending down to at least low B-natural and up to at least high B-natural with at least one further semitone required at either end.

            All the nine roles we’ve referenced here combine those seven attributes. It is on that basis that these nine roles emerge as being of a very distinctive and consistent type, relatively rare, yes, but uniform in their vocal patterns.

            I have subsequently found that these guidelines are actually useful in ferreting out other roles that partake of many but not all the attributes common to the “Big Nine”! :-) For instance, Maria Stuarda partakes of some of the Assoluta attributes but not all. The same is the case with the Trovatore Leonora and a host of others as well. In fact, I find that one of the rarest characteristics found predominantly only in the nine defining Assoluta roles is attribute #2!

            A final word of warning about Roberto Devereux: If Gemma proved awfully forbidding to you, I fear that RD may not be very different. While Elisabetta is not as long a role as Gemma, its sequences have just as much a concentration on vertiginous writing as those for Gemma. In addition, relative moments of “repose” in Elisabetta are actually fewer and further between than in Gemma, precisely because Elisabetta is the shorter role and consequently more concentrated in its bewildering vocal somersaults. To put all that in proper perspective, bear in mind that both Gemma and Elisabetta were written for the same extraordinary artist: Giuseppina Ronzi De Begnis, a special favorite of Donizetti’s (in fact, he thought her even greater than Malibran).

            Geoffrey Riggs

            • Camille

              Mr Riggs!

              My word, I just don’t know what to say in thanks.

              Please excuse my tardy response, as I have been out all day and had no time to check in here, never suspecting there would be such a wealth of information.

              Tomorrow I will read it and perhaps be back with another question but, if still available at the Juilliard Store, perhaps the best way to thank you would be to buy your book.

              My deepest gratitude!

            • Gualtier M

              Mr. Riggs -- would you add the role of Hélène in “Les Vepres Siciliennes” to your list of assoluta roles? I think the music for that role comprises most, if not all, of your list of attributes.

            • Camille

              Mr Riggs:

              While I really do appreciate your reply I am afraid you haven’t answer these essential questions as yet:

              “what are the criteria upon which you base the decisions of rating these roles as you do? Are you sourcing original theatrical categorizations from the time of those compositions?

              Since 2003 I have been aware of your book and have circled around it with interest, but have never been able to determine what the basis of your hypothesis is and upon what actual sources you base your suppositions. I had hoped you would answer that question for me, above… so, I remain unconvinced. When I am next at Lincoln Center I will look for your book, to read your explanatory thesis, which I have not yet found extracted online. Do you read in Italian? Have you researched materials available there? Creating a new tag name for the category, out of whole cloth and extraneously to the actual traditional nomenclature strikes me as spurious and unnecessary. It ties in, subliminally with associations to the late Maria Callas, who has appeared as a culmination of that type of soprano, with many pretenders to the throne.

              I frankly just don’t know and will try to get the foreward and explanations of your thesis down before I make a final judgment or buy the book, which has interested in me, but I feel requires RIGOROUS scholarship.

              Thank you for your time.

              Thank you for your response and your enthusiastic

        • Niel Rishoi

          HI Geoffrey, will catch up with you presently -- mucho thanks!

        • Niel Rishoi

          Thank you for your lengthy response, Geoffrey. The soprano assoluta categorization I mainly agree with. Interesting to note that Verdi’s early soprano roles are so closely tied in to Bellini and Donizetti’s time. I’ve wrestled with whether, say, Norma was closer to Mozart or to Verdi -- in how singers used their voices.

          The difficult aspect is how rare are voices who can truly do justice to all the roles you listed, and I’ve noted that Lady Macbeth seems to be well-sung, proportionately, than most of the others.

          As to the review of Devia’s Roberto at Carnegie Hall -- your summations, I think, are quite accurate.

          As to the “m’abbandona in eterno a sospirar” -- I looked at the score again, and I don’t think there’s any soprano who could take that entire phrase in one breath -- it is much too long. It may either be a slight failing on Donizetti’s part, or perhaps there IS a break there, but didn’t get copied down properly? Just hazard guessing.

          There is another note-complete Roberto, a pirate: summer of 1990, Gruberova, along with Thomas Allen, conducted by Ferro, at the Vienna Concert House. It sounds SO much better, structurally speaking, to have it absolutely complete: especially, the finale to Act 2 has a sweep and fullness to it, that, once you’ve heard it, you miss it. These operas don’t need cutting!

      • Niel Rishoi

        Grazie, Camille, I appreciate that SO much! I realize such discussion is esoteric in nature, but it’s part of being a rabid vocal aficionado.

        Mr. Riggs’ list, I think is accurate, and he followed up most conscientiously. I would not venture that every Anna Bolena can sing an Abigaille or a Lady Macbeth…or sometimes even vice versa. Anna Bolena has a lot of filigree note work at the top of the range (most of them cut the first cabaletta in half). On to Mr. Riggs’ response…thank you again!

        • Camille

          Not at all, a real pleasure. These things should not be considered esoteric in any case but brought to people’s attention so they will not think a musician, of any kind, presses a magic button and a sound comes forth. It’s a lot of concentrated and specific effort and there is a manner to do it in correctly.

          The problem with Radvanovsky’s singing of the ? vowel is something I’ve noticed for some time now and your explanation is making sense to me. She must sing the way she does because she must compensate, to sing. She had those nodes removed a dozen years or so ago now so it must have been a HUGE adjustment for her. I admire her courage and tenacity as well as her candor in speaking out about a subject singers fear exposing themselves on, and with good reason.

          I will listen attentively to Signora Pirozzi as my initial impression is that this lady knows what she is doing (I due Foscari). Thank you so much!

          • Niel Rishoi

            You’re welcome, and you totally “get it.” Singing is a bloody-tough business and to get all the elements lined up to facilitate an ideal whole…such hard work, and many must accept that they can only go so far.

    • A most illuminating post, Niel. Thank you!! Glad to see more of you here.

  • Patrick Mack

    Polenzani as Pollione?!?!
    Next to Anna?
    Wouldn’t it be preferable if he was actually audible in the ensembles?

  • thenoctambulist

    Geoffrey, as someone who has been aware of your thesis for the past five years and spent countless hours pondering on it, I am still frustrated by one simple fact. Why do you use the term “assoluta” to denote these parts but not “sfogato”? Most of the parts you mentioned were written for a specific type of soprano: the soprano sfogato. Indeed, you tease out a specific genre for these roles and indeed there was, that of the soprano sfogato. I am still at a loss as to why you would invent a separate characterization when a historical one actually exists.

    • While I have no deep objection to the term “sfogato”, and even regret that I did not at least address that term in the Assoluta book, there are some ambiguities that have attached themselves to the term. First and foremost, the customary use of the term fifteen years ago or so (I think the book was published in 2003?) was “soprano sfogato” and not just “sfogato”. That poses a problem (which I’ll get to), even though I recognize that “soprano sfogato” duly acknowledges a singer who sings as a soprano while also having a mezzo “past”, which certainly fits with the type I survey in the book.

      The chief problem is that the “soprano” part of that designation has resulted in a few unfortunate misunderstandings, including the clearly erroneous take by a few that “soprano sfogato” means the highest type of soprano of all instead(!) [sic!]: Robin, Pons, etc.! This, as I say, is clearly erroneous, but it is a misunderstanding that’s grown some legs, unfortunately, and I still occasionally see that misunderstanding here and there to this day.

      I think we can guess that one possible cause of that misunderstanding is the simple presence of the word “soprano” in the “soprano sfogato” designation, regardless of the initially legitimate context in which the word “soprano” is being used there, historically. Consequently, I felt it important that one get as far away as possible from any hint of either “soprano”, mezzo”, or “alto” in applying a usable and unambiguous term to these parts and their creators.

      Essentially, these roles are neither soprano nor mezzo but include the totality of both (meaning that they are also not narrowly in-between, or zwischenfach, either). That’s why “Assoluta” by itself, without either “soprano” or “alto” in the term, seems the most usable and least misleading in characterizing this vocal type.

      Mind you, “sfogato” by itself arguably has the same advantages — in this particular respect — as “Assoluta” by itself; but since “soprano Assoluta” is being thrown around loosely somewhat more, even, than “soprano sfogato” is, it seems that “Assoluta” by itself is the more readily comprehensible term — in its general connotations — for most readers than the term “sfogato” by itself. I have no serious objection to someone using the term “sfogato” by itself, since that would be historically grounded, at least. But I do think it arguable that the term “Assoluta” by itself may lead to a somewhat clearer general understanding of the essence of this vocal type.


      G. R.

      • I think your use of the term “assoluta” just has to do with wanting to make your research/book sound groundbreaking when in fact the term “sfogato” has been used for a long time to describe the voice type and roles your “groundbreaking research” talks about.

        • Ivy, your point would have been more valid at a time before “sfogato” started being associated (by a minority, but still) with the highest female voice type of all instead. But whether or not that very occasional new meaning reflects a total misunderstanding (and yes, I believe it does), that misunderstanding has still rendered the term “sfogato, even by itself, more ambiguous than “Assoluta” would be.

          Yes, the meaning of “sfogato” is totally unambiguous in the nineteenth century, and that’s the chief reason why I have no serious objection to your using it, or to anyone else doing the same. But in 2003, the ambiguities that had already started being (however erroneously) attached to it had effectively rendered “Assoluta” a less unmistakable, more intelligible and less fraught term.

          Maybe in fifty years or so the occasional erroneous take on “sfogato” as the highest female voice type(!) will finally be a droll memory only, thus leaving “sfogato” just as transparent and useful a term as “Assoluta”, after all. At that point, “sfogato” will, in fact, be arguably rendered an even more apt term than “Assoluta”, due to the historical precedent for “sfogato”. But for the time being, “Assoluta” is a less problematic term, thanks to “sfogato”‘s more checkered history.

          It’s just a little bit like the word “eventually” being marginally preferable to “presently” to mean sooner or later but not immediately. They both mean essentially the same right now, but at one time “presently” did mean immediately, which is the only reason, frankly, why I tend to use the word “eventually” more often than “presently” to mean sooner or later.

          Again, I have no objection to the possible use of “sfogato” by others. I just think “Assoluta” is marginally less ambiguous, for now.

          Geoffrey Riggs