Radvanovsky in regal form for Lyric’s triple crown of Donizetti queens

Mon Dec 02, 2019 at 1:44 pm

By John von Rhein

Sondra Radvanovsky performed final scenes from Donizetti operas in “The Three Queens” Sunday at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

When you’re a reigning diva of the operatic moment, challenging yourself artistically and keeping the cult flame alive often move on parallel tracks. Anna Netrebko is doing so by moving into the heaviest Verdi and Puccini repertory. Renée Fleming is embracing American musical theater works. Joyce DiDonato is venturing a little bit of everything, from new American operas to theme-recitals to crossover.

Sondra Radvanovsky is going in her own direction, amping up her ownership of the leading ladies of bel canto. Having conquered all three of Donizetti’s Tudor Queens – the title roles in Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda, and Queen Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux, at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2015-16 season (a triple crown never before attempted by any singer in Met history) – the Berwyn-born soprano has put together “The Three Queens,” a trifecta consisting of the final scenes from each opera.

Lyric Opera of Chicago presented the program for the first time Sunday afternoon at the Lyric Opera House.    

Radvanovsky had given Lyric audiences a foretaste of her bel canto marathon with her triumphant assumptions of Anna Bolena in 2014 and Norma in the Bellini opera in 2017. But to test her vocal and dramatic prowess against these demanding, vastly different Donizetti roles in a single program was a bravura feat none of her precursors in this virtuosic repertory ever undertook. Not Maria Callas, whose dozen performances of Anna Bolena were landmarks in the modern bel canto revival. Not Beverly Sills, who starred as all three Donizetti heroines at New York City Opera during the 1970s.

The idea for “The Three Queens” came from Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza, a bel canto specialist and frequent Radvanovsky collaborator, in conversation with the singer, who later proposed the project to Lyric. Following the Lyric run, Radvanovsky is scheduling performances of “The Three Queens” elsewhere, according to a Lyric spokeswoman. None have yet been announced.

The semi-stagings by director Matthew Ozawa understandably kept the focus on the singer’s riveting portrayals of the three suffering heroines, with members of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center in comprimario roles and the Lyric Opera Chorus functioning as window dressing.

The statuesque Radvanovsky got to model a succession of sumptuous period-modern gowns, each more elaborate than the last, created for the diva by American designer Rubin Singer. Her luscious, multi-textured attire – real gowns, not costumes – stood in high relief against the basic black attire of the supporting singers and choristers. The uncredited unit set consisted of a generic balcony suspended across the stage, with a different configuration of staircases for each opera.

Radvanovsky was in characteristic voice for the occasion, the sound as voluminous as her designer gowns—steady, powerful, darkly gleaming and mostly accurate, even in the most fiendishly difficult coloratura fireworks where her rock-solid technique never failed her. At full throttle, high notes resembled screams more than musical tones; as with Callas before her, conveying dramatic truth means more to this consummate vocal actress than cooing the pretty sounds of a songbird. The blazing intensity of Radvanovsky’s singing at emotionally charged moments was thrilling to behold and drew roars of approval from the audience.

For this listener, the limpid float and caress of her soft singing in the cavatinas and other introspective passages spoke most tellingly to her stature as a vocal artist, as she affectingly conveyed the queens’ innermost sorrow, torment, confusion, pride, terror and vulnerability as Anna and Maria faced death, and Elizabeth an old age bereft of her lover.

Presenting the finales of each opera in order of composition stressed historical continuity as well as the relationship of these monarchs across different periods of Tudor history, even if Donizetti and his librettists never meant for their queens to be performed or perceived in such manner.

The Anna Bolena finale, a semi-mad scene for Anne as she awaits execution at the hands of her abusive spouse, King Henry VIII, worked best as a stand-alone operatic scena—here, great music and high drama forming a grand arc. It is also the most cruelly demanding of the three finales, demanding every kind of singing imaginable. Radvanovsky touched all hearts as the heroine, in her cavatina, reminisced about the simple life and first love she left behind to become Henry’s wife. The soprano roused the crowd to lusty cheers after she painted Anne’s defiance in the trill-laden bravura singing of the cabaletta. A metallic hardening of sound in the upper register was a small price to pay for vocalism of such fearless attack and emotional intensity.

The bitter confrontation between the rival queens Mary and Elizabeth that marks the Act II climax of Maria Stuarda occurs ahead of the finale, leaving the prayer in which the imprisoned Mary asks God’s forgiveness of her accusers as the musical crux of the excerpt presented on Sunday. Radvanovsky made her sustained high G over the chorus—ascending to a top B-flat—speak volumes about the impossible situation in which the doomed Mary found herself. The bright-voiced tenor Mario Rojas, a third-year Ryan ensemble member, made the most of his brief turn as Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who loves Mary but is also the favorite of the absent Elizabeth.

Ironically, the extended excerpt from Roberto Devereux contained the strongest singing but the weakest staging. (The title character never appears in the finale, since he is by then well on his way to an offstage scaffold.) The costumer dressed Radvanovsky’s aged Elizabeth all in white, a vision of spectral splendor doddering around her palace on a cane. But the leading lady nailed both of her arias splendidly. In the first, she made the monarch’s vertiginous arpeggio plunge from top A to bottom D a stunning declaration of wounded pride and anguish. The powerful aria that ended the scene brought her finest singing of the afternoon, a ravishing example of the clarity of tone and elegance of legato known in Italian as limpidezza.

Radvanovsky fans will be in their glory with this two-hour extravaganza.   

In Frizza, the diva had a rock-solid bastion of musical support, a true stylistic soulmate and a conductor who secured clean and polished orchestral playing and choral singing. Donizetti’s orchestrations may be rather undifferentiated from one opera to the other, but Frizza did yeoman work at bringing out colors and textures unique to each piece, thus sidestepping possible aural monotony. The various Ryan Center apprentices dispatched their bit parts well, while Michael Black did his usual expert job of preparing his choral forces.\

The one bad idea was Lyric’s decision to project scene-setting introductions to each opera—in bold capital letters, at that—across the forecurtain during the overtures. Are such redundant and unnecessary intrusions to become a permanent crux for audiences too lazy to read the program book?  

“The Three Queens” will be repeated 7 p.m. Wednesday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Lyric Opera House; lyricopera.org; 312-827-5600.

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to “Radvanovsky in regal form for Lyric’s triple crown of Donizetti queens”

  1. Posted Dec 03, 2019 at 5:14 pm by Leslie Buys

    I am hoping for a recording of this to be announced. I hope they are going to make one. I will be in line to buy a copy of the recording for sure.

  2. Posted Dec 04, 2019 at 3:21 am by Chuck

    As per normal, a very informative, interesting and useful review by John von Rhein. I was at Sunday’s performance, and it was intense and spectacular. Several times during the performance I felt as if Toscanini was leading the orchestra, in the sense of thrilling and dramatic forward propulsion of the music and drama. Yet, seemingly not one detail of the score was overlooked as not being important. John von Rhein’s comments on the performance of Sondra Radvanovsky I think capture perfectly the performance. This was concentrated opera at the highest levels of performance. I’m still thinking about it and still enjoying it days later.

Leave a Comment