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An Olympian Achievement

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An Olympian Achievement

The Met’s breathtaking production of Roberto Devereux May 10, 2016
Arts and Culture

If Peter Gelb does nothing else of note during the remainder of his tenure as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, he will have contributed to world culture with this season’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s hauntingly beautiful tragedy Roberto Devereux, never before heard at the Met. At the production’s core was soprano Sondra Radvanovsky’s wrenching portrayal of an aging Queen Elizabeth I—a performance of shattering emotional intensity that bodied forth all of humanity’s frailty and evanescence. Radvanovsky was supported by a dream cast—Elīna Garanča, Matthew Polenzani, and Mariusz Kwiecien. Opera-goers fortunate enough to have nabbed tickets to the sold-out house will remember their experience for decades.

That Donizetti would compose a work of such pathos in 1837 is not surprising, given the Job-like losses he sustained that year. Within a few months, his three children, wife, and parents all died. Nevertheless, Donizetti’s relentless work ethic—he was then Italy’s leading opera composer—propelled him forward, resulting in not just one but two operas in 1837, and another two in 1838.

The story of Roberto Devereux blends fact and romantic legend. It is true that Queen Elizabeth sent her favored courtier, Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex, to Ireland in 1599 to quell a simmering rebellion. It is also true that Essex was beheaded in 1601, the victim of palace intrigue and his own impetuous behavior. It is almost certainly not true that Elizabeth had earlier given Essex a ring with the promise that if he were ever to fall out of favor, he need merely present it, and he would regain his standing in her eyes. According to the legend, adopted as historical fact even by David Hume in his History of England, Essex tried to send Elizabeth the ring after her privy council issued his death sentence—but his emissary, the countess of Nottingham, failed to deliver it under pressure from her husband, Essex’s enemy, thereby ensuring Essex’s death.

Salvadore Cammarano, Donizetti’s preferred librettist, made the ring conceit central to his libretto for Roberto Devereux, spicing the story up further with conflicting love interests, as first imagined in an 1827 French play, Elisabeth d’Angleterre, by diplomat-dramatist Jacques-Arsène-Polycarpe-François Ancelot. Cammarano’s libretto is tauter than Ancelot’s play, and tauter as well than Cammarano’s most well-known libretto—Il Trovatore—which is encumbered by a mystifying back-story and action-stopping exposition. Roberto Devereux, by contrast, moves efficiently and brings a Shakespearean irony to the tragic asymmetries of knowledge that divide the characters.

Elizabeth would have been 67 in 1601, the year in which the opera is set. Sondra Radvanovsky portrays the elderly sovereign as a mixture of haughty grandeur and heart-breaking vulnerability. She first sweeps on stage lit from behind by a stark white light, head held high and chin jutting forward, her hand trembling slightly on a red cane. Her long rectangular face is powdered stark white, effacing her eyebrows and eyelashes; her wide lips are painted deep red, like a bloody gash. Orange-red curls pile atop a bald forehead and tumble down her chest in two improbable pigtails. Regally eyeing down her courtiers, Elizabeth is soon pitifully confessing to her trusted lady-in-waiting, Sara, the duchess of Nottingham (Garanča), that she fears that she has an unknown rival for Devereux’s affections. In one of the plot’s many painful ironies, Sara is in fact that rival.

Elizabeth’s first aria is an emotional and melodic roller-coaster, and it immediately revealed Radvanovsky’s mesmerizing dramatic power. Radvanovsky’s large soprano is not conventionally pretty. It has a metallic quality in its middle range, satisfyingly raspy like the burr of a cat’s tongue, recalling another great singing actress—Maria Callas. Her voice is capable of blasting out a high shriek of vengeance, then dropping precipitously into a dark, cavernous growl, but also of spinning out ravishing pianissimo lines that change color and shape as they float gently downward.

This musical control is just the start of Radvanovsky’s hypnotic stage presence. When Elizabeth discloses her suspicions that Devereux no longer loves her, Radvanovsky’s eyes show the terror of aging and the resulting loss of control. Her hands are as expressive as her face—slapping a table in rage, plaintively reaching out to touch Essex’s cheek (sung by Polenzani) in the hope of recalling his affections. Early on, as Elizabeth awaits Essex’s arrival from Ireland, she gives in to amorous hopes in a slinky, flirtatiously syncopated aria, “Ah! Ritorna qual ti spero (May you return as I hope you to be)”; Radvanovsky fondles the face of a boy-toy courtier crouched at her feet, then impetuously pushes him away with two long fingers, savoring her remaining feminine power. In her final encounter with Essex, as she signs his death warrant, her eyes never leave him, silently imploring him to relent, while her body convulses in sobs.

It was in the last scene of the opera that Radvanovsky plumbed the ultimate pathos of the human condition through almost unbearable self-exposure. Elizabeth’s wrath against Essex for his betrayal is spent; now she only hopes that he will send her the ring so that she can recall the warrant. Radvanovsky hobbles over to a mannequin bearing her magnificent white satin court dress, picks up the hem, then throws it down in revulsion as if it were a poisoned serpent. She imagines Essex walking to the block and rips off her wig in despair, revealing a white scalp crowned with wisps of fuzz. She studies her ravaged features in a mirror, touching her skull with quavering fingers, as she renounces her claim on Essex in a long silken cry of suffering. Sara rushes in with the ring, which Essex had earlier given her, and Elizabeth realizes that Sara is her rival. Overcoming her shock, she begs her courtiers to save him, grabbing at their clothes like a discarded old woman. It’s too late: a cannon explodes, signaling that the axe has dropped. Out of a stunned silence, the strings jitter nervously, then the orchestra breaks out into a majestic funeral march with an obsessive pulse, and Elizabeth, imagining Essex’s headless ghost running through the palace, renounces her throne. Radvanovsky’s voice in her final aria is ecstatically rich and full, leaping to the rafters before falling like a cataract into the depths, even as she is bent over and palsied with grief.

Elizabeth’s vision of a bloody specter is a variant on the bel canto mad scene, but without the maudlin sentimentality that usually characterizes such moments, including Donizetti and Cammarano’s famous scene from Lucia di Lammermoor. The climax in this production was instead as close as any modern-day audience is going to get to the catharsis that Aristotle attributed to the Greek tragedies, leaving the viewer shaken to his core.

Sondra Radvanovsky (center), Matthew Polenzani, and Elīna Garanča (far right) take a curtain call for the Metropolitan Opera’s "Roberto Devereux."

Radvanovsky could not have created such an emotional cataclysm if her fellow singers had not shared her dramatic intensity. Polish baritone Kwiecien brought nobility and raging hurt to the duke of Nottingham, Sara’s husband, conveyed through singing of supple warmth and gorgeous tone. Kwiecien’s fury is feral when the duke finally discovers that his wife, whom he adores selflessly, loves his cherished friend. Fangs bared, his chest heaving, he confronts Garanča’s Sara in an electrifying scene of barely contained violence, as he curses the loving trust he put in both of them.

Tenor Polenzani as the earl of Essex is tortured from the moment he first strides into the royal courtroom and falls to his knees before Elizabeth; his black military doublet, elaborately embroidered in silver, replicates a contemporary portrait of Essex. Polenzani shaped his two final bittersweet arias, sung while awaiting his fate in the Tower, with exquisite delicacy and precision, confirming his status as one of the most musically sensitive tenors of our day. Whispered notes were suspended in the orchestral silence, grew in volume, then fell back into a sigh. Unlike the traditional tenor who lunges at high Cs at wince-making volume, Polenzani often alights upon the summit of a line as delicately as a butterfly; the classic heroic-tenor ringing tone emerges organically as the line evolves.

Latvian mezzo soprano Garanča can burn up a stage with erotic tension, as she did in the Met’s otherwise dreary Richard Eyre production of Carmen, but Sara is more of a stoic sufferer than a fiery protagonist. Garanča plays her with poignant dignity. In an opera of thrilling ensembles, Sara’s renunciation duet in waltz-time with Essex, “Da che tornasti (Since you returned),” stands out for its time-stopping, weightless loveliness, recalling the hypnotic final trio, “A la faveur de cette nuit obscure (Thanks to this dark night),” from Rossini’s Le Comte Ory. A French horn languorously encircles Sara’s opening melody, and she then pairs with the horn to answer Essex’s line, all rendered flawlessly in Garanča’s dark, plummy legato. Garanča’s ornamentation, like the rest of the cast’s, was tasteful, unlike the self-indulgent eruptions of an older generation of singers. Particularly striking was a variation Garanča introduced during Sara’s confrontation duet with Nottingham. Traditionally, the melody repeats four high Fs at the line “Tu, Dio clemente, tu, Dio l’accerta (You, merciful God, you can prove)”; Garanča instead alternated between the high F and the F in the octave below, creating an effect of even greater emotional distress.

Conductor Maurizio Benini should be in the running to replace the outgoing James Levine as music director based on his achievement here. Donizetti’s score breathed with subtle expansions and contractions of tempo; the coordination between the stage and pit was absolute. Tempi were dynamic and moving. The orchestra is the handmaiden to the voice in bel canto opera; Benini enveloped the singers in expectant silences and the usual purling arpeggios, here given unusual interest due to the attention that went into their pacing. The marvelously protean overture was windswept, shifting between a gossamer Midsummer Night’s Dream-like fugue, a wistful rendition of “God Save the Queen” in flute solo and chorale, Beethovenian thematic development, and the inevitable bel canto canter. Even the incongruous musical juxtapositions characteristic of bel canto tragedies, in which matters of devastating import may be presented through the jauntiest of tunes, seemed natural, arguably representing a philosophical stance toward tragedy itself. (When a menacing Nottingham asks Sara if she knows that betrayed husbands have a vengeful God in heaven, for example [“Non sai che un nume vindice”], a dire Commendatore-like warning in the French horns may precede his threat [one of several Don Giovanni echoes in the score], but the instrumental parts soon devolve into what can only be described as a ditty with the strings fluttering around the vocal line like putti.)

One might have thought that Roberto Devereux would resist the modern-day compulsion to update opera plots, since it is lodged in such familiar and specific historical terrain. This assumption overlooks Germany, whose opera intendants have never seen an opera that they are content to leave as the composer and librettist intended. The Bavarian State Opera has staged a soulless Roberto Devereux with a shrill Margaret Thatcher as the queen and Essex a sullen British bureaucrat—never mind that British cabinet ministers do not call for their swords when they want revenge, or that Britain no longer beheads unfavored functionaries.

It was clear from the start of the overture that the Met’s production was going to be an aesthetic experience of an entirely different order. The chorus, clad in ravishing black Renaissance costumes, quietly walks onto the stunning black-paneled Tudor set and, at a cymbal clap, turn defiantly to face the audience, striking poses of courtly hauteur like Golden Age Dutch grandees, their movements embodying a deep understanding of aristocratic semiotics. The present scourge of staging distracting dumb-shows during opera overtures should ordinarily be resisted: the most egregious recent example of this trend is the crude morning-after sexual caper that Richard Eyre has the gall to mount during perhaps the greatest opera overture ever written—Le Nozze di Figaro—in the Met’s current production. Director David McVicar’s understated use of the chorus, by contrast, was musically astute and theatrically compelling. McVicar’s deployment of the tired “play within the play” conceit was, predictably, less persuasive, but it was easily ignored. Otherwise, the direction was riveting. The lighting, sometimes from below to emphasize the artifice of the court, deserves special mention.

This is the third of Donizetti’s four Elizabethan operas that McVicar has recently staged for the Met; Roberto Devereux is so superior in its set design and dramatic insight to McVicar’s Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda that it is as if a different director were responsible. But then, Roberto Devereux is also musically and dramatically heads and shoulders above the other two works.

In the final performance of the opera, Radvanovsky and Polenzani each ran out of voice on their last note—understandably. They had given their all during the run, along with the rest of the cast, in a fearsomely demanding work, and had risen to Olympian levels of artistic expression. Dazzled fans have been posting bootlegged segments of the HD movie broadcast online, only to have them promptly scrubbed by the Met copyright police. Fair enough, but the Met should release the DVD of the broadcast as soon as possible, so that people who saw the production can sate their yearning to relive it, and everyone else can see what he missed.

Top Photo by Metropolitan Opera

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