“You filthy bastard! You unworthy, obscene harlot.” Fighting words, those. Not what you’d expect from someone in dire need of clemency, especially when hurled at the only one who could grant it. These incendiary epithets lead to the arrest of Mary, Queen of Scots, and bring Act I of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera “Maria Stuarda” to an electrifying apex. Saturday, Feb. 20, Metropolitan Opera’s revival of this riveting bel canto drama—performing arts at its finest—closed its run of seven performances marking the estimable U.S. debut of tenor Celso Albelo, appearing opposite American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, as Maria.
In an earlier exclusive interview with the tenor from Canary Islands, he spoke of how exposed the vocal line is for the role he portrayed, that of Robert (Roberto) Dudley, Earl of Leicester, torn between two queens. His performance Saturday betrayed none of the feared perils. Instead, Celso Albelo was in resplendent voice, high notes in place, unstrained, solid, glowing, sumptuous. He negotiated the “zona di passaggio” (the notes around which chest voice changes to head voice) without difficulty.
Lately sopranos and mezzo-sopranos who perform the role of Queen Elizabeth I (Elisabetta) do a lot of shouting, as if dramatic expression equals volume equals stridency. And, in a way, who can blame them? After all, the historic monarch was quite a harridan. Shrieking may have come naturally for her. Yet South African soprano Elza van den Heever, repeating the role of her Met Opera debut in 2012, didn’t fall into that trap. Instead she conveyed drama and intensity while respecting the fact that this is an opera in the bel canto style, meaning “beautiful singing.”
Elza van den Heever, towering over fellow cast members, strictly adhered to bel canto technique, yet managed to convey all the drama—Elisabetta’s wrath, her vexation, her impatience—with impeccable legato and creamy tone, from a rich lower register to an easy extension above the staff. Next season she is Elettra in Mozart’s “Idomeneo.” May this bode well for many frequent returns to the Met.
Closing the love triangle that Donizetti’s librettist devised to simplify for the lyric stage Queen Mary’s politically and romantically complicated life, American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky completed part two of the “Tudor Trilogy.” Though not at the top of her game, the soprano did not disappoint. The late great Beverly Sills has ruined “Maria Stuarda” for every soprano, no one coming close to equalling her searing lyrico-dramatic portrayal—not even the likes of Dame Joan Sutherland or Edita Gruberová—with the possible exception of Mariella Devia. Still, comparisons are unfair, and none of those great ladies were on hand Saturday.
Fully present and engaged was Sondra Radvanovsky, who floated lovely pianissimo high notes that could somehow be heard even over, for example, the Act I sextet with chorus, “È sempre la stessa: superba, orgogliosa” (She’s always the same: patronizing, proud). The audience rightly and heartily cheered her entrance aria and cabaletta, but by far gave her the most raucous ovation after Act II’s prayer, “Deh! Tu di un’umile preghiera il suono odi” (Have pity on me! Lend your ear to the sound of a humble prayer), with the massive, stock-still chorus skin-tinglingly scintillating, singing “sotto voce” (quietly).
Sondra Radvanovsky floated the sustained high G over the chorus’ repetition of her prayer, slowly increasing the volume and rising to a fortissimo B-flat, but then misjudged and kept the volume at fortissimo instead of shrinking back to pianissimo for another “crescendo” when sustaining the high B-flat over the chorus’ declamation of the following two lines. This exposed the slight wobble that seemed to plague her throughout the performance. Again it’s unfair to compare, but her Maria came across as insecure against her earlier triumph as Anna Bolena in all her vocal ferocity. Still, her performance was indeed impressive.
Act II—the stronger of the two both musically and dramatically, tightly structured and propelled unrelentingly by a sense of urgency and underlying doom—feels through-composed. It begins with a “duettino” between Elisabetta and Cecil that morphs finally into a trio with Leceister. Elisabetta signs the death warrant, to Leceister’s chagrin. Elza van den Heever avoided screeching, but just as compellingly, with gorgeous tone, sang, “Sì, la sentenza, oh traditore!” She got the job done. The rest of the opera is rightly Maria’s.
Maria’s prior face-off with Elisabetta during Act I’s climax gave Sondra Radvanovsky the chance to personalize the humiliated queen’s tirade. Donizetti didn’t set the first two lines of inveighing—“Figlia impura di Bolena, / Parli tu di disonore?” (You contaminated daughter of Boleyn, Who are you to speak of dishonor?)—so her solution was to sing them in recitative style. She only broke resonance with the final word of the last line “Vil bastarda, dal tuo piè!” (By your foot, you filthy bastard). She declaimed “piè” (foot) with an appropriate Italian gesture of disparagement.
In supporting roles, deep honey-toned South Korean bass Kwangchul Youn, redolent of the late beloved French Canadian baritone Louis Quilico, was George (Giorgio) Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury; singing with lush but appropriately unsympathetic gravitas, American bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi was the treacherous William (Guglielmo) Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elisabetta’s Secretary-of-State, happy to see the “problem of Maria” resolved with her execution; and American mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak used her plummy chest tones and restrained vibrato as Jane (Anna) Kennedy, Maria’s kindly, faithful lady-in-waiting.
For all the plot twists and turns, the complexities and intrigues, the personal tragedies arising from spoken subtlety, you’ll need to see Friedrich Schiller’s drama “Mary Stuart,” which inspired the opera—highly recommended. Forget historical fidelity, though. History abounds with gossip about a romantic entanglement between Elizabeth and Leicester, but is silent about any romance between him and Queen Mary. Elizabeth once suggested Mary marry the already-very-married Dudley, thinking she could control them both through him, but he was unwilling. Though long sympathetic to Mary, he later advocated her execution.
Supposedly there’s no improving on perfection, yet somehow the Metropolitan Opera Chorus does it anyway every time. The final scene was theirs as much as Maria’s. The solemn “Vedeste? Vedemmo. O truce apparato!” (Did you see? We see it. Oh, deadly scene!) was their chance to shine. Maria’s elegantly dressed, severely backlit friends and family stood completely motionless before the scaffold, looming above them and accessible by a steep flight of 20 steps. Their stillness riveted all eyes and ears on them. Their mostly quiet delivery of the dark, full-bodied chords was chilling.
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra played splendidly following Italian maestro Riccardo Frizza’s skillful, sympathetic lead. Particularly stirring was the overture, whose opening phrases of jabbing strings and jittery woodwinds soon yielded to a haunting lengthy clarinet solo, pointing forward 28 years to Giuseppe Verdi’s 1862 opera, “La forza del destino,” with its three-minute clarinet solo introducing Don Alvaro’s great aria, “La vita è inferno all’infelice … O tu che seno agli angeli” (Life is hell to the unhappy … Oh, you, cherished by angels). This auspicious beginning was a mere foretaste of the orchestral treats yet ahead.
During the enthusiastic curtain calls, a jubilant cast engaged in a little onstage fun. Sondra Radvanovsky was the playful instigator, first deeply curtsying accepting her ovations, then turning and knowingly pointing overhead at the executioner, who motioned with his huge ax. Next it was a bit of hip-bumping with costar Elza van den Heever in feigned upstaging antics, the farce betrayed by the ladies’ radiant smiles, visible laughter and quick hugs. The cast’s principals obviously enjoyed genuine camaraderie.
Backstage afterward, Celso Albelo, by now in civvies and accompanied by friends from Spain, spoke to visitors when suddenly Sondra Radvanovsky and, a bit later, Elza van den Heever effusively accosted him with, variously, amiable words of adieu and hearty embraces. “As of Tuesday, I become a Canadian again,” Ms Radvanovsky told her leading man in her best Italian—mentally searching for the word “Canadian.” She was referring to her adopted home in Caledon, Ontario, with husband Duncan Lear, her business manager, who was standing by patiently tending the luggage.
The tenor said he had “passed the test.” During the run, someone contacted him asking if he would like to return to the Met and, if so, what roles would he like to perform. So who knows? Though not presently cast for the 2016-17 season, several of his roles will be in repertory: Arnold in Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” (finally); Arturo in Bellini’s “I Puritani”; the Duke in Verdi’s “Rigoletto”; Don Ottavio in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”; and the title role of Massenet’s “Werther,” a role he soon assays in Tenerife. Did someone say “last-minute replacement”?
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