Screen queen

Devereux 4This season’s Met Donizetti Tudor Trilogy concluded with Roberto Devereux, given its penultimate performance by HD transmission Saturday, April 16. It is good to see these works finally given here; they are too important, too crucial a part of the operatic repertory to have been ignored for as long as they have. 

Having heard the Met Livestream at its premiere, as well as some succeeding performances on Sirius, I was intensely curious to see how it played out visually. Opening night was problematic vocally, fraught with what sounded like nerves or exhaustion. In addition, Maestro Maurizio Benini’s tempi were soggy, draggy and portentous. Improvements commenced subsequently, although certain drawbacks, which I will discuss below, remained throughout the run.

David McVicar, the designer and director, kept scenic matters on the traditional side, with richly dark, forbidding, but handsomely conceived sets which served as a fitting backdrop for the drama. Some of those concepts seemed unnecessary and confusing; the orchestral prelude had the choristers surrounding and paying tribute to the queen’s marble tomb, then facing, and staring at the audience. This seemed superfluous.

Then, at several points in the performance, the chorus was relegated to standing in balconies on either side of the stage, observing the proceedings below. At the very end the cast bowed to the applauding chorus before doing so to the audience. What purpose this served was unclear.

It was also unclear why Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham, initially decked-out in royal garb, was subsequently made be be dressed as a scrubwoman for the rest of the opera.

The most egregious act of savagery that McVicar committed, though, was having the queen made to look like a Grand Guignol ghoul in the opera’s crucial closing scene. In Elisabetta’s music, we hear, quite vividly, her womanly anguish; but it is of a monumental kind, filtered through the sovereignty of a queen, with all of her majesty. Her grief, via the composer, is made epically implicit. To strip Elisabetta physically of her dignity by suddenly turning her into a doddering, wizened old hag, laid bare before her subjects, seems deeply atypical of a queen’s behavior.

It is not just here that McVicar similarly imposed this idea: in the Met Anna Bolena, he had Anna looking like a mental patient escapee (but not when Netrebko sang it); and in Maria Stuarda, Maria is made to be nearly bald (history tells us her hairless head wasn’t revealed until she was chopped, when her wig fell off).

The shock value aspect—revealing each queen to be “just a woman”—seems more like a gimmicky fallback cliché than a dramatically credible device. It veers toward the melodramatic and slightly tawdry. In the Devereux, if there has to be a tear-off-the-wig moment, the timing of it in McVicar’s staging—right at the beginning of the scene—seems wrong dramatically. Having it flung off near the end seems a more apt place.

All that aside, this is in many respects one of the best-directed, and blocked bel canto stagings I have ever seen. I have rarely seen such care in the “working-out” of all of the crucial duets and one-on-one confrontations. These players are made to be clearly listening to, and interacting with each other. Reactions to specific words and phrases are compelling, and vocally and physically, there’s a dynamic sense of the drama’s stake taking place.

Best of all, there’s an obvious collegial sense of duty and rapport, an active mission to work together harmoniously in the service of the proceedings. This element, by far, was the most successful factor in the production; there was nothing that smacked of the worst of provincial Italian opera in any way.

Elina Garanca is far and away the best Sara I have ever encountered, in every possible aspect. Her physical beauty alone makes it very credible that she is both the object of love in Roberto’s case, and of jealousy in Nottingham’s. Sara is considered the seconda donna, but you’d never think that given Garanca’s natural stage charisma. The Latvian mezzo’s lustrous, brilliant tone afforded real pleasure whenever she sang: her sinuous legato in “All’afflitto é dolce il pianto,” and “Dacché tornasti,” in particular revealed a shimmering, ductile beauty of tone.

Garanca’s vowels and consonants are scrupulously crisp, clear, and conscientious; even during tense dramatic moments, the tonal emission remains firm and centered. The voice is all of a piece, with blooming, pealing highs, and a firm, well-supported lower register. Garanca’s singing and performing in this run of performances sustains her high-caliber international reputation. May we please hear her as Léonor in La favorite?

Matthew Polenzani, in the title role, continues to grow in leaps and bounds as an artist. His recent star turn in the Met’s Pearl Fishers, took me by total surprise in his beautifully poised soft singing and involved stage presence. He turned in no less for Roberto’s “Come uno spirto angelico,” which was sung with flair, beauty of tone, the breath control remarkable. In addition, Polenzani showed rapt involvement in all of his scenes, in particular the duet with Sara, in which he convincingly effected romantic ardor, physically and vocally.

Earlier, in contrast, his standoffish recalcitrance with the demanding Elisabetta was equally well played out and conveyed. Ostensibly, the friendship between Devereux and Nottingham is a platonic one, but the affection the two were made to portray—hugs and kisses—might have inadvertently hinted at something further. But it did effectively underline the massive betrayal Nottingham registers when Sara’s scarf is revealed: he’s lost both best friend and wife.

Marius Kwiecien, as Nottingham, is a superb physical actor. He has an old-tyme swarthiness and a theatrical, Boothian look to his persona, and cuts a dashing figure onstage. Kwiecen was especially vivid and intense in the duet with Garanca, well conveying the hurt and dangerous anger at her transgressions.

Vocally, though, matters were starkly inconsistent. Kwiecen has a most pleasing tonal quality, but he has a distressing tendency to throaty belting, especially above the staff, and it disturbs the cantabile lines of his phrases. In fact, both the baritone and tenor frequently appear to lose resonance in declamatory and higher-lying forte passages (Polenzani appeared to tire during the cabaletta). These are matters of concern rather than deal-breakers in so much that was outstanding.

In a more scholarly vein, though both tenor and baritone sang double verses of their cabalettas, there were no variations utilized for the second stanzas (I always wonder, in these times of awareness of stylistic elements in the bel canto realm, how these matters get persistently overlooked or disregarded when it comes to the male singers).

As Elisabetta, Sondra Radvanovsky, in far better form than in the premiere, reached heights of true magnificence in the pivotal final scene. Freed from the earlier distractions of having to enact contrived bits of business (more on that shortly), she’s allowed to revel in the lyricism of Donizetti’s magisterial, and perhaps greatest, grandly dramatic final scene.

Radvanovsky, it must be said, here sang her heart out; personally and artistically, it was a triumph. Personally, because she appears to really be transmitting Elisabetta’s broken soul with the sincerest outpouring of herself: artistically, she shows real affinity for the Donizettian cavatina. The soprano revels in displaying her fine dynamic control, and the long, unbroken line, in which she excels; the exquisitely plaintive, poignant emotions within those lines suit her gifts most persuasively.

Other than the costuming choice I objected to above, allowing Radvanovsky to be relatively still and unencumbered during this scene proved to be marvelously felicitous. The spotlight just on her, everything else out of the picture, she made time stand still by just being at one with the music (and a touching moment occurred during the bows when she appeared overwhelmed by the roaring ovation she received.)

Elsewhere in the performance, two other moments stood out. Radvanovsky effectively conveyed Elisabetta, the woman, and her tender, wistful side in “L’amor suo mi fe’ beata,” etching its lines with care and skill. Also notable was her sympathetic entreaties to Roberto in their duet; the soprano touchingly revealed Elisabetta’s most vulnerable emotions with quiet fervor; “Oh rimembranza… Un tenero core” was, especially, gorgeously sung.

As to the reservations, first to the dramatic: can there please be a lasting moratorium on the “neurasthenic” extraneous physical characterization in the portrayal of Donizetti’s Queen Elizabeth?

Nowhere in Donizetti and Cammarano’s sweeping, sovereign conception of Elisabetta, either in the text or the music is there any indication of a nervous, twitchy, fidgety queen as the one Bette Davis popularized in her 1939 movie, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Though well-received at the time, Elizabeth is one of Davis’s hammiest, and ultimately, most anachronistic creations: she’s more Davis than anything else.

It may be Davis in costume, but what comes through is all of the characteristic Davis mannerisms—nervous, fidgety, and twitchy (one of the reasons Davis preferred William Wyler as her director is that he tirelessly squelched those mannerisms).   Beverly Sills, as evidenced in the 1975 performance from Wolf Trap, plainly adopted the Davis model. Whether it worked in tandem with Donizetti’s is a matter of debate.

Unfortunately, being long familiar with the Wolf Trap video, I saw much evidence that Radvanovsky studied it, and used many of Sills’ Davis manifestations. Too, I heard, throughout the trilogy, many aspects of Sills’ performances—certain lines taken up, bits of phrasing identically intoned, and occasional interpretive ideas—being utilized. Only in the final scene did Radvanovsky emerge as her own, more appealing entity.

Act two, I felt suffered as a result; it was not Radvanovsky’s strongest work here. She seems less confident in the imperious-seize-the-drama mode, and she indicated anger and frustration in ways that Sills did: slamming of hands on the table, lurching and pitching about, and much in the way of extraneous, unceasing physical reactions. All these busy manifestations betray dramatic insecurity. Elisabetta here has the upper hand, and her majesty should be all-encompassing, regal and mighty. Her words and manner are decisive, intractable, and unyielding.

Now to matters vocal: the issues I have with certain traits in Radvanovsky’s singing, I have concluded, are most likely mine; but in the interest of disclosure, it is only fair of me to detail why.

I have, in the span of about two years, heard/seen of Radvanovsky in several Anna Bolenas, Normas, Maria Stuardas, and Roberto Devereuxs. Overall, I thought her Maria Stuarda was the most successful, because the role calls for, mainly, the kind of plangent, lyrical singing which is her strongest suit. Radvanovsky’s natural vocal endowment is one of the greatest in opera today: its fullness, size and strength is matched by few of her peers. There are, though, elements which I feel make her work less optimal than it could be.

In my opinion, the areas where she is less effective and convincing lie in her recitative, declamatory sections in moments of high drama, and difficult passagework.

Radvanovsky’s vowels tend to be rather bland, and are quite often discolored. Consonants will blur or flatten out. Her grainy tonal production strikes me as low, and laryngeal rather than high, frontal and resonant; could this be the reason why her vowels don’t emerge—and “place”—clearly? The “eh” vowel seems to give her the most trouble; when she sings a word like “furore” for example, it comes out like “furori;” “orribile like “orribili.”“Ah” will sometimes sound like “uh.”

And yet, there are other times when those vowels will have their correct integrity of coloration; when she intoned “Non ami” in the duet with Roberto, Radvanovsky produced an effectively “chesty” sound. 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.

This inconsistency in her tonal palette I feel restricts her effectiveness in the second act, where Elisabetta has many strong, vigorous lines which require some bite in the tone, and a kick of firm, decisive vowels and phrases. Here, crucially, the queen has so many memorable moments of exciting febrility where the soprano can turn herself completely loose in the reveling of high drama; and Radvanovsky seems inhibited and cautious, her rhythmic sense not strongly defined in the deployment of key phrases. Benini’s slow, un-propulsive conducting seemed to prevent Radvanovsky from gaining momentum in building to the climax, “Va, la morte.”

Controversial too, are Radvanovsky’s sopracuti. Sometimes they work, but many times they do not, emerging as a hoisted-up yelp. Again, I think this results from where she places the tone, which seems to be laryngeal, from which lacks ideal ping and resonance, and causes the characteristic flutter we often hear, especially as the line rises. At times this fluttering tonal emission will veer on the underside of the pitch.

I also gather that her opacity of tonal production prevents difficult passagework from being ideally springy and buoyant, as in the cabaletta to the first aria. Sequences of notes blurred rather than being distinctly articulated, and the repeated high Bs were “dragged” across rather than separated by repeated, accented strikes on the notes. Sutherlandian precision in coloratura is not Radvanovsky’s; on the other hand, the latter artist is vastly superior in the moulding of a slow melody.

My reservations by no means nullifies Radvanovsky’s personal triumph. Her success promoted the validity of these works, which, frankly, I thought would never see the light of day at the Metropolitan Opera.

In being critical in the ways that I outlined, it is perhaps to my disadvantage that I have decades of study, in both score and performances, behind me, so that I have many more firmly-held views than someone who has only a casual, or no experience with Roberto Devereux. As it is, I enjoyed this performance very much, because it further contributed to my experience; and, if it must be said, I am overjoyed that this great work of Donizetti’s is getting the showcase it so deserves.

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera