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.