Matthew Polenzani, rising American tenor, stars in a major performing arts event as the title character of a stage work never before seen at Metropolitan Opera—Gaetano Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux.” He, the Duke of Essex, catches the eye and captures the heart of the world’s then most powerful woman, Queen Elizabeth I. The eight-performance run commences Thursday, March 24, and ends Tuesday, April 19.
In an exclusive interview, the tenor happily explained to byteclay.com in layman’s terms his role preparation method and vocal technique. He even expressed admiration for his peers.
In a second exclusive interview, byteclay.com spoke with Matthew Polenzani’s vocal coach during the past 18 years, mezzo-soprano Laura Brooks Rice, Professor of Voice at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., whose private students appear on concert and opera stages worldwide. She says regarding his “spectacular voice”: “Matthew is a very smart singer who understands his voice perfectly, and I am the lucky one who gets to hear it up close. I continue to be humbled that he puts his trust in me and my ears with this marvelous talent.”
A 1981 Met National Council winner herself, Laura Brooks Rice spoke en route back to Princeton after attending the Met’s full dress rehearsal Monday morning, March 21, in New York. “Roberto Devereux,” according to what she saw, “is a wonderful show in every way, visually and vocally very strong. The rehearsal went straight through without a hitch. It was just beautiful.”
How did her student fare at dress rehearsal? “He did magnificently, which is just what I expected. It’s not easy to sing full out that early in the morning [10:30], but I cannot be more pleased with what I heard.”
How about the other cast members? “They all were equally fantastic,” says the vocal coach, “I am a big fan of them all.” Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień and Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča are the Duke and Duchess (Sara) of Nottingham, rivals in differing ways to the Duke of Essex (Roberto) and Queen Elizabeth I (Elisabetta), respectively.
Donizetti’s librettist has Devereux pining after Sara, whom the queen—under pain of death—has conveniently married off to Nottingham, whose friendship and loyalty to Devereux suddenly turn to jealousy and vengeful wrath when incriminating evidence found on his person suggests his friend has betrayed him with his wife.
Elizabeth is consumed with suspicion that another woman rivals her for Devereux’s affections. She reasons: If Roberto is sentimentality untethered to another woman, that ought to leave him open to her advances. Open, maybe, but not doing business; he unwaveringly refuses to name anyone who lays claim to his heart. Elizabeth produces the incriminating evidence, a scarf Sara embroidered and secretly gave to Roberto. Nottingham, recognizing it, vows revenge. When he later has the chance to intervene and save Devereux’s life … Let’s just say he tarries.
American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky embodies Elisabetta, the formidable monarch. Specifically concerning her, Laura Brooks Rice says: “She delivers a tour-de-force performance. She’s a fantastic singer and an incredibly honest actress. We are fortunate to have an artist who’s capable of performing all three roles.” She alludes to the title roles of Donizetti’s other two works in the so-called Tudor Trilogy: “Anna Bolena” and “Maria Stuarda,” seen earlier this season.
This season, Matthew Polenzani prepared two roles to debut them at the Met. The first, that of Nadir in Georges Bizet’s “Les Pêcheurs de Perles” (Pearl fishers), was a critical success during the winter. How does a world-traveling tenor, husband and father of three pull off such a feat?
After thorough study, he consults his coach. Laura Brooks Rice says they see each other “a half dozen times each year, definitely when he’s working on something new. He checks in regularly,” she says, “though he’s very independent.” She teaches all her students to become independent.
“He’s a wonderful guy, a great friend, and it’s a marvelous collaboration; we make a good team.”
“Roberto Devereux” is rife with floridly embellished singing (or, coloratura), involving long, sustained lines requiring mastery of breath control, messa di voce (holding a note while slowly increasing, then decreasing, the volume) and thousands of notes. Our tenor modestly places himself alongside his admirable peers: “I was never as good at coloratura as Larry Brownlee or Juan Diego Flórez—it’s absolutely perfectly right for their voices in a way that it was never right for me. I could kind of do it, but it wasn’t the thing I was best at.”
“Kind of”? Matthew Polenzani is too modest. A consummate Don Ottavio in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” he has to negotiate all the legato, messa di voce, and pianissimo high notes in “Dalla sua pace” from Act I and dispatch the coloratura of Act II’s “Il mio tesoro.” “I’m a little better at the long line,” he says, in characteristic understatement.
“Probably,” says he, “the hallmark of my singing is that my soft voice is audible everywhere.” How does he bring it off with such command as to make it sound easy?
The tenor explains: “It’s taken time to figure out how to sing quietly, especially in the higher ranges. I had to cultivate a sound that has some firmness and body, not just falsetto, that will carry into the audience. Top notes have always been easy for me, and I have had to think how to process the sound, to sing quietly on top. You have to keep the core of your voice in the sound, but be soft, because without the core the voice doesn’t carry.”
Matthew Polenzani’s family is quite musical. His sister, Rose Polenzani, is a singer-songwriter. “Both my parents liked to sing. Mom plays the piano, but I never went to the opera. It was never introduced to me as an art form or a form of entertainment that could equal, say, movies or television.” Fellow Yale alumna mezzo-soprano Rosa Maria Pascarella married him. (“When I need a strong statement about what is going on with my voice, she is absolutely the first person I will turn to.”) They have three children—ages nine, seven and five.
According to Laura Brooks Rice, people often compare Matthew Polenzani with Fritz Wunderlich and Nicolai Gedda—two artists who, if they were still performing, would have completely preempted all the fuss about a certain Three Tenors. So Matthew Polenzani finds himself in a stratum of talent that breathes rarified air.
What is his take on Fritz Wunderlich, who tragically died at age 35, in 1966? “His vocalism is practically unimpeachable. His sound is so incredible, one of the most beautiful sounds that a human ever made. I don’t try to imitate him; I’m my own singer. But I like to study his approach to words and what he did with them.”
Judge Matthew Polenzani’s voice for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.
By the way, is the Met taking requests? How about expanding the Tudor Trilogy to a tetralogy? A future season could present the Met premiere of Donizetti’s “Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth” (1829), in which Elizabeth I ultimately is shown to have a slightly more jovial side amidst all the spluttery bluster. That opera brings back the Leicester of “Maria Stuarda.” The Four Tudor Queens tetralogy could someday rival a worn-out, four-opera cycle by a certain Richard Wagner.
While we’re at it, in “Roberto Devereux,” Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, first appears reading a book about “Rosamonda,” evidently Rosamond Clifford, the tragic historical mistress of 12-century King Henry II—admittedly 200 years before the Tudor period—ancestor to King Henry VIII, who figures prominently in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” (1830). In 1834, Donizetti wrote the tragic opera “Rosmonda d’Inghilterra,” who dies at the hand of Queen Eleanora di Guienna (Helen of Acquitaine). Renée Fleming recorded the role in 1995 for the Opera Rara label. Perhaps she could be prevailed upon to …
“Roberto Devereux,” eight performances March 24–April 19
The Metropolitan Opera
Broadway and 64th Street
New York, NY 10023
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