Illinois-born New Yorker Matthew Polenzani is the first tenor ever to sing the title role of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” on the Metropolitan Opera’s legendary stage, a performing arts lifetime achievement. His command of the long elegant vocal line, suave delivery of legato phrasing and trademark quiet singing that he makes heard everywhere all gave luster to this already glittering premiere production, designed and directed by Sir David McVicar, seen Saturday, April 16. Fellow American Sondra Radvanovsky portrayed the historical Queen Elizabeth I (Elisabetta), the Earl of Essex’s thwarted love interest, a juicy detail librettist Salvatore Cammarano invented.
Powerhouse Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča appeared as Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, making her a complete, three-dimensional character. Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień was her husband, the at-first sympathetic, later spitefully vengeful unnamed “Lord Duke of Nottingham.” The four principals indeed comprised luxury casting.
Donizetti queens have lost their heads left and right this season, starting with Anne Boleyn (“Anna Bolena”), then Mary, Queen of Scots (“Maria Stuarda”). Sondra Radvanovsky admirably embodied them both and survived to tell the tale. History dealt more kindly with this monarch, Elizabeth I, daughter of King Henry VIII and the aforementioned doomed Anne. In “Roberto Devereux” she keeps her head—though she loses her heart and, ultimately, her mind—when the Earl of Essex goes to the scaffold, and she, despite all her regal power, is a moment too late to save him.
Donizetti’s lavish score features Devereux in just five major numbers: three duets (Act I), a trio (Act II) and his taxing aria and cabaletta (Act III). The duets portray his precarious relationships with his queen, with his longtime friend and with his former love, now married by royal decree—under pain of death—to said longtime friend. That most of this never really happened in history matters not one whit when gorgeous bel canto music propels the action. Donizetti’s clever use of drumroll economically heightens tension here and there: Elisabetta’s entrance, the delivery of the Peers’ verdict, Devereux’s brief death march.
Matthew Polenzani’s Devereux was correctly proper, even outwardly servile, in Act I upon seeing the queen again for the first time. He has returned from Ireland against her orders, after his failed mission there. Their duet, “Donna reale, a’ piedi tuoi (Royal lady, I kneel at your feet), starts politely, with good-boy obeisance.
Soon, though, he becomes insolent with her. To her gentle query if he is not perhaps in love with someone, he sasses with a flat in-your-face “Me? No.” The queen erupts, enraged; he cowers, trying to feign bravery, in the ramped-up-in-speed-and-intensity cabaletta “Un lampo, un lampo orribile!” (A horrendous thought, like a lightning bolt!).
In his second duet, with Nottingham, Devereux recoils, as if he’s no good at hugging another man. Nottingham, full of worry, confides an intimate vignette from his marriage, and Roberto learns Nottingham’s wife is the one true love of his life, Sara. Nottingham gallantly goes off, vowing ‘in the sacred name of friendship’ to defend Devereux before the Peers and save him from certain death, and it simply slips Roberto’s mind to mention “Okay. Well, I’m off to your house, to see your wife.”
Devereux’s third duet, though, in Act I, Scene 2, with Sara, “Dacchè tornasti, ahi misera!” (Since you returned, ah miserable me!), brought out his true colors, being mostly varying hues of green. In ungentlemanly jealousy, he aggressively mistreats his true love, now his best friend’s wife, assuming the worst. “You treacherous, disloyal liar!” he inveighs. He softens only upon hearing her out: “Fui tratta al talamo … Che dico? Al mio letto di morte!” (I was led to the marriage bed … What am I saying? To my deathbed). “Oh heavens!” he whispers in shock.
With ever-so-quiet musical phrases, Matthew Polenzani deftly “whispers” at various times, each time with distinctly different coloration, thus conveying diverse emotions. When Elisabetta first explodes, he murmurs as if through gritted teeth ‘How can I disguise my wildly beating heart?’ and we hear true fear. Once convinced he must leave Sara forever, Devereux implores external forces to aid him ‘since no mortal man’s heart holds such virtue’ (“ché d’un mortale in core tanta virtù non è”), which he sings as a sonic caress, his breathy “tanta virtù non è” betraying aching frailty facing temptation.
Nowhere is his art at quiet singing more touching than his Act III, Scene 2, aria “Come uno spirito angelico” (Like an angelic spirit). The phrase floats from his throat on the thinnest thread, rendering him for once believably sincere. Alone in his cell, hoping for a last-minute rescue from execution, he soliloquizes, as if imploring Nottingham himself, to trust that Sara has remained angelically faithful to him, pure and chaste. ‘You must justifiably slay me with your sword, and while I lay dying I will continue defending her virtue.’
Already hailed by the press, Sondra Radvanovsky’s singing defied belief—her all-time best. She seems to have found her niche in operatic roles: perhaps not the big-voice Verdi and Puccini heroines (Aida, Amelia in “Ballo,” Tosca) after all, since bel canto demands strictly reining-in all that horsepower to control all faculties to produce the requisite sheer beauty so apparent in this performance. Very few sopranos can negotiate the pyrotechnics of lickety-split, ornamented, elongated phrases, trills and roulades, and make it sound beautiful too. Sondra Radvanovsky has finally managed to do so.
As the 67-year-old Elisabetta, the much younger soprano is an utterly honest actress. She truly inhabits her roles. Before our eyes she became the Virgin Queen and conveyed her character, not through grand gestures and exaggerated postures, but in innumerable subtleties: snatching her skirt away at the precise moment the 36-year-old Devereux sought to kiss its hem, dismissively flicking the wrist at a courtier whose hand had just kindly supported her, walking slightly stooped, an occasional wobbly unsteadiness and a discreet use of a cane.
Her incredibly varied singing was just as nuanced, ranging from the soprano’s lowest chest-register growl to her world-famous stratospheric pianissimo note spinning somehow audible above orchestra and chorus; from the improved trills to the always immaculate coloratura; from the heart rending messa di voce to the searing intensity of personalized interpolated ornaments … Now that she has added a more beautiful tone to the equation, what might she be capable of? Certainly a widened bel canto repertoire, bringing other convincing interpretations to roles not always taken seriously because of their until-now seeming implausibility.
Productions often reduce Sara to an inconsequential cipher, everyone’s target for vicious cruelty. Fortunately, not this production. Elīna Garanča smoldered as a volcanic force, giving Sara a backbone. Director Sir David McVicar took liberties, allowing Sara to dawdle in a couple tender kisses with Roberto. Not so pure after all, eh? But, hey, she’s only human, albeit totally make-believe.
Elīna Garanča turned in a searing, vocally voluptuous performance. In Sara’s melancholy entrance aria, “All’afflitto è dolce il pianto …” (To the afflicted, tears are sweet), she lusciously plumbed the rich depths of her range in the phrase “Io vivendo ognor morrò!” (Though living, I will continually die) and subsequently soared to glorious heights with a gorgeous bell-like vocal quality only previously heard in Mirella Freni.
Sparks flew in Sara’s electrically charged confrontation duet with her drunken husband, “Nol sai, che un nume vindice hanno i traditi in cielo?” (Don’t you know that the treacherous have an avenging God in heaven?), with its skittishly nervous introduction comprised of flitting string triplets remarkably evocative of the great Act II “Lucia di Lammermoor” sextet.
Rounding out the principal roles, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień played the Duke of Nottingham with particular finesse. To Devereux he sustained warm, solicitous, even heroic resonance until the Act II turning point, whereupon he vehemently spat fiery, yet melodious, invective at his would-be rival for Sara’s love. He does “drunk” credibly well, and one actually feared for Sara in their Act III duet.
Coincidentally, this was the second opera of the season in which this baritone and tenor paired up in friendship—each time jeopardized by a woman—the first being “Les Pêcheurs de Perles” (Pearl fishers).
Bel canto specialist Maestro Maurizio Benini masterfully led the mighty majestic Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the splendid Chorus, principals and minor characters in a magnificent, uncut reading of Donizetti’s dynamic music. The overture made sense under his direction, its curious minor-key quote from “God Save the Queen” succeeded by the intervening gossipy string interludes mirroring the intrusive, scandal-mongering courtiers; the rousing conclusion, briskly quoting the tenor’s Act III cabaletta, musically foretold the monarch’s inexorably driven race against time. Maestro Benini kept everyone together, on track, with clean attacks, always lovingly supporting the soloists.
The magnificent Metropolitan Opera Chorus, splendid in every moment, especially shone in Act II’s opener “Misero conte! Il cielo irato di fosche nubi si circondò!” (Poor [Devereux]! Irate heaven’s darkened clouds surround him!). During the staged overture, the chorus touchingly pantomimed a funeral homage before what ultimately was understood to be the queen’s sarcophagus, whereupon they handsomely intoned the opening chorus, finishing with a sustained pianissimo tutti that miraculously melted into nothingness.
Matthew Polenzani sure has guts, premiering two roles in one season at the Met. Yet he is justifiably loved there, and his panache truly enhanced this brilliantly executed work.
General Director Peter Gelb originally offered the triple-crown Tudor Queens trilogy to Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who withdrew after acquitting herself well in the first installment, “Anna Bolena” (2012), citing a shift in repertoire focus from bel canto to heavier lyric roles.
Worthy of deep respect, Sondra Radvanovsky valiantly picked up the gauntlet and went to great lengths to demonstrate her serious commitment to the 22-performance project. With hope, her fierce interpretations have brought overdue attention to the fact that bel canto works in general, and these three operas in particular, deserve to be prominently ensconced in every Met season. How about a Tudor Queens Trilogy every other year featuring a death-defying soprano with the chutzpah and sheer determination to triumph all throughout the run? Any takers?
“Roberto Devereux,” through April 19
The Metropolitan Opera
Broadway and 64th Street
New York, NY 10023
Tickets and Customer Care: 212.362.6000