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Note: This is a slideshow with the press shots from SFO, most of which are in the articles below. All photos hereafter are from this set, and credited to Cory Weaver and the SFO (unless otherwise noted).
A glorious close to Roberto Devereux @sfopera. This has been one of the most spectacular opera experiences for so many in the company and in the audience. It is sad to be bidding farewell to our operatic royalty but the memories they leave will last a lifetime. pic.twitter.com/PwvqV27wvg— Matthew Shilvock (@MatthewShilvock) September 28, 2018
When soprano Sondra Radvanovsky made her powerful San Francisco Opera debut in “Il Trovatore” in 2009, there was reportedly a tongue-in-cheek petition circulating backstage to bar the company from ever again performing Verdi without including her in a leading role.
Now, after the first performance of “Roberto Devereux” at the War Memorial Opera House on Saturday, Sept. 8 — the second half of the most thrilling one-two punch of a season opener in many a long year — I’m prepared to expand Radvanovsky ‘s monopoly to include Donizetti as well. Maybe Bellini too, in honor of her “Norma” from four years ago.
Because really, why settle for less? Once you’ve experienced the kind of extravagant vocal majesty and theatrical intelligence that Saturday’s audience did, there’s just no going back.
It’s not as though Radvanovsky’s blazing performance was the only thing that made this undertaking a success, either. She had valiant, expressive colleagues by her side — mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and tenor Russell Thomas, the same ensemble that had contributed to the splendor of that “Norma” — and there was crisp, vigorous musical leadership from conductor Riccardo Frizza. Director Stephen Lawless’ production, imported from the Canadian Opera Company, was a marvel of thoughtful precision.
But let’s not kid ourselves — this was Radvanovsky’s night. Her performance as the aged but still vital Queen Elizabeth I — a stormy, impassioned mixture of regal pride, wounded sensitivity and magnificent vocal technique — was the work of a world-beating singer at the very apex of her artistry. It was the kind of showcase that in years to come will stand as an emblematic moment in a great career.
And like a true monarch, Radvanovsky made the entire proceedings bend to her will. “Roberto Devereux,” to be sure, is something of an ensemble piece, and Elizabeth, as you might have noticed, isn’t even the title character.
Yet everything that happens on stage occurs with reference to the old queen’s whims and desires — for love, for political loyalty, for the sheer deference that is due to the imperious daughter of the equally imperious Henry VIII.
“Devereux,” the last and in some ways meatiest of Donizetti’s three operatic portraits of the Tudor queens, is drawn loosely from a historical episode late in Elizabeth’s life. She conceived an ambiguous passion for Roberto Devereux, the Earl of Essex, a wily careerist some 30 years her junior, and sent him off on a military expedition to Ireland, which he bungled impressively. Some combination of romantic spite and realpolitik ultimately led her to execute him for treason.
Those are all the elements any Romantic librettist ever needed, and “Devereux” plays fast and loose with the facts to create a love triangle among the two antagonists and Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham. The result is just enough historical flavoring to keep the musical and dramatic structures of bel canto opera — two-part arias, love duets and so on — afloat.
Yet Lawless, with help from the late set designer Benoît Dugardyn and costumer Ingeborg Bernerth, is not content to let the historical backdrop simply be pushed aside. His production — the first “Devereux” mounted here since 1979 — accompanies the overture with a witty pantomime filling the audience in on Elizabeth’s entire career to date, with all its psychological stresses and political triumphs. The action is set in the stalls of a theater on the lines of Shakespeare’s Globe — a well-worn conceit but entirely appropriate to the occasion.
In this context, the grandeur and vulnerability of Radvanovsky’s performance seemed aptly larger than life. She sang with a robust combination of thunderous high notes — impeccably supported, perfectly placed — and strong-limbed phrases in even the most emotionally intimate music. If a monarch were to condescend to love, one felt, this is surely what it would sound like.
Thunderous, too, was the reaction of Saturday’s patrons. The applause that greeted Radvanovsky’s first aria was as sustained as any I’ve heard in a long time — it went on and on, starting to subside and then springing up again, as if the audience were reluctant to let the moment pass too soon.
The rest of the cast, for the most part, made worthy company for her. Thomas brought tonal clarity and rhythmic vigor to the title role, and Barton, as Sara, gave a performance rich in pathos and cloaked in the thickly upholstered vocal colors that make her singing so irresistible.
Baritone Andrew Manea, an Adler Fellow who stepped in as the Duke of Nottingham as a late replacement for the originally scheduled Artur Rucinski, sounded overmatched but shouldered his assignment without faltering, and there were dandy contributions from Adler Fellows Amitai Pati and Christian Pursell. Frizza conducted with blend of suave rhythmic accompaniments and steady drives toward the work’s climaxes.
In the end, though, nothing could outshine the spectacle of Radvanovsky’s glory. I suspect that old scene-stealer Queen Elizabeth would have been proud.
San Francisco Opera has staged Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” just once, in 1979, but on Saturday, a new, glorious, instantly memorable production at the War Memorial Opera House more than made up for its long absence and rarity.
English director Stephen Lawless’ production raises the curtain on a set immediately recognizable as a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Splendid mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, as Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham, meltingly and sweetly expresses her guilt-ridden love for dashing Roberto Devereux, Earl of Essex. Her feeling of guilt is well-founded, because none other than the queen is also in love with Roberto.
Radiant soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta, Queen of England, arrives to command the stage and let it be known that while she loves Roberto, she suspects he has been unfaithful. Elisabetta may be an aging monarch on the frail side, but she remains royally imposing; Radvanovsky was superb in the role with vocally penetrating power, ravishing coloratura passagework and unyielding dramatic resolve.
As the object of both women’s desire, tenor Russell Thomas made an endearingly strong first appearance in the title role. He unfurled lyric charm and verve in his arias and duets, and was particularly moving seeking to defend Sara’s honor in the touching Act 3 aria “Como uno spirto angelico” delivered while being locked up in the Tower of London (an effectively staged scene).
While Thomas wins the audience’s sympathy, Roberto doesn’t redeem himself with his closest friend the Duke of Notthingham, who knows Roberto has been having an affair with his wife. Baritone Andrew Manea made a favorable impression as the Duke, singing with clarity, depth and compellingly expressing the range of the character’s emotions.
The Duke’s jealousy and rage over his friend’s betrayal propels Roberto toward an unfortunate fate, which is already imperiled by his questionable truce with Irish rebels — yet Elisabetta’s ire seals it.
In Act 2, Radvanovsky’s aching tenderness gives way to steely vengeance as Manea and Thomas join her for a beautifully rendered trio, “Un perfido, un vile, un mentitore tu sei” and she signs Roberto’s death warrant.
Radvanovsky’s queen, spent emotionally, and with her physically aged vulnerability now on full display, exquisitely delivers her aria of forgiveness “Vivi ingrato,” belatedly receives from Sara the royal ring she once gave to Roberto that Elisabetta promised him was the key to his salvation, and then stays his execution — all to no avail. In another nice staging effect, Elisabetta make a funereal-like exit from the throne and the stage in a glass and wood case.
Conductor Riccardo Frizza led the orchestra with insightful precision, while Ian Robertson’s opera chorus burnished the Tudor setting with magisterial grace.
A production new to San Francisco Opera opened last week as the second offering in the Company's fall season. Gaetano Donizetti's lyric drama "Roberto Devereux" lights up the War Memorial stage with a semi-historical pageant that triumphantly combines stellar musical artistry with colorful showmanship.
Director Stephen Lawless' original Canadian Opera Company staging aims to please on multiple levels, and succeeds in providing an inventive framework for the entertaining but often inaccurate libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, which chronicles the tempestuous relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and the unruly Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.
It's set in an impressive replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre designed by the late Benoit Dugardyn, with gorgeous costumes by Ingeborg Bernerth and effective lighting by Christopher Akerlind. Lawless paces the Tudor-era tragedy briskly, with intelligent mindfulness of the composer's solid musical structure and the daunting challenges facing the singers.
He supplies illuminating back-story with appearances by Elizabeth's parents Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and even a pop-up by the Bard of Avon himself, in a charming pantomime enacted during the Overture. It quickly brings us up to speed on the Virgin Queen's youth and reign to date. She may have inherited her father's iron will to survive, and imperiously rule a court fraught with intrigue, but she also suffers the tortures of the damned in her love life; at least, according to librettist Cammarano.
His invented love triangle, based very loosely in historical possibility, involves Good Queen Bess with Devereux and Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham. Sara is the favorite among Elizabeth's ladies, and wife to the conflicted Duke. His friendship with Devereux is poisoned by unfounded (as it tragically turns out) suspicions of her infidelity.
After a failed command sortie in Ireland, where he signs a peace treaty with the rebels against royal orders, Devereux returns to court amidst rumors of treason. The machinations of his enemies, especially a wily Lord Cecil and stolid Sir Walter Raleigh, bring Elizabeth to a horrible impasse. When the apparent betrayal of her romantic love by Robert sets the seal on his fate, it shouldn't be a spoiler to share that Devereux lost his head for Gloriana after all.
The ingredients for a bel canto tour de force are all set for a convoluted but essentially basic tale of love and jealousy. Donizetti responded with some of his best dramatic arias and duets, including many vivid choral contributions and a thrilling conclusion to each act. A good production can set "Roberto Devereux" as the rightful jewel in the crown of the composer's masterful trilogy on the Tudor queens.
Conductor Riccardo Frizza joined director Lawless' vibrant concept with full orchestral support and nicely judged tempos. The rich carpet of sound was subtle and propulsive. The singing by Ian Robertson's SFO Chorus was predictably characterful and cohesive.
The greatest test for the success of any bel canto opera comes with the solo vocalists, and this is where "Roberto Devereux" 2018 scores highest. Second-year Adler Fellow baritone Andrew Manea was a late replacement for an injured Artur Rucinski as the Duke of Nottingham, and he portrayed his slow boil to revenge believably. Tenor Amitai Pati (second-year Adler Fellow) and bass-baritone Christian Pursell (first-year Adler Fellow) also proved the worth of their residency with strong performances as Lord Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh.
Acclaimed mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton brought memories of a young Marilyn Horne to mind in her touchingly sympathetic role debut as Sara. Her rich tone is pure even in moments of dramatic stress, and she matches beautifully with her co-stars.
Tenor Russell Thomas, also making his role debut as the title character, is a good actor with an impressively powerful voice. His important solo in his imprisonment scene was especially fine, and, like Jamie Barton, he works convincingly within the ensemble.
"Reigning diva" soprano Sondra Radvanovsky couldn't be better suited to reign as Elisabetta. Her stunning performance runs the gamut from passionate woman in love to frail and beleaguered old lady, and she dominates the marathon with a combination of strength and moments of surprising delicacy. Her towering portrayal is unforgettable.
The show may be history "Masterpiece Theatre" style, but that's no knock, because as opera it is masterpiece bel canto style.
Even if you’re hot stuff, it doesn’t pay to offend the queen.
That’s the moral of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, in which the title hero loses his head for loving a woman other than the aging, but passionate Queen Elizabeth I. San Francisco Opera’s production has stars that make this simple love triangle a searing musical drama and a staging that questions the whole genre of history plays (and operas).
A whirlwind overture pantomime recounts Elizabeth I’s traumatic life history, with a special guest appearance by Shakespeare. It feels insulting to the audience’s intelligence: buffs of opera or history already know these facts. But the purpose of the pantomime isn’t didactic; it is to introduce Elizabeth as a sort of storybook heroine. (Her climactic moment at the end of the overture, which I won’t spoil by describing here, is truly heroic.)
Director Stephen Lawless uses his production to examine the narrative afterlives of real people. Benoît Dugardyn’s set is modeled on the Globe Theatre, emphasizing that what we’re seeing is a fiction. Characters from Elizabeth’s past make appearances as nineteenth-century diorama models encased in glass. At the end of the opera, Elizabeth steps into her own glass case. Lawless’s concept is coherent and adds a thought-provoking layer to a flimsily plotted opera. Some details – synchronized sewing by the women’s chorus, Lord Cecil’s comically exaggerated use of violence, Nottingham’s appearance with blood-soaked hands – prove unfortunately distracting.
Not than anything could distract from Queen Sondra Radvanovsky when she is on the stage. Her Elisabetta is a force of nature. She shows the signs of age clearly in her tottering steps and a hairline that has receded out of sight, but she refuses to succumb. She proudly rejects helping hands and preens in her mirror. Her belief in her own strength and beauty lends credibility to her deluded passion for Roberto Devereux. Radvanovsky’s sound is steely and cutting, without a glimmer of warmth, and so powerful it verges on pushed. Yet her muscular approach never interferes with clean coloratura – in fact, it lends her runs and ornaments extra dramatic impetus. Her phrasing also astonishes: She takes her voice from shriek to whisper and back in a single line of text.
As Elisabetta’s friend and innocent rival Sara, Jamie Barton deploys a richly layered, tightly controlled voice that she makes delicate or harsh to suit the drama. In a den of nasty personalities, Barton’s Sara is touchingly sincere. Russell Thomas’s Roberto Devereux inspires less sympathy. He’s a smirking, conceiting poppycock, speaking noble-sounding words while flaunting the ring he knows will save him. He is at his most sympathetic in the third act, when he realizes he may not escape his fate. There, Thomas’s hefty, mobile voice gains a buttery softness and breaks off achingly at the end of phrases.
The other three men of the opera are sketched as moustache-twirling villains. Nottingham, initially Devereux’s devoted friend, turns brutal, strangling and raping Sara during their confrontation. This is especially jarring because Andrew Manea looks so mild-mannered in his plain clothes and spectacles. He sings Nottingham in a flowing line with nice roundness of tone. He is not quite at home in the role yet: stiffness and lack of expressive variety marred his first scene. Other Adler Fellows made excellent smaller contributions: Amitai Pati’s sunny sound as Lord Cecil contrasted with his character’s gleeful evil, and Christian Pursell gave Sir Walter Raleigh a full, honeyed voice and delightful swagger.
Riccardo Frizza led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra with a light touch. There were shakes and crashes where the score called for them, but the overall impression was of stately dignity. Donizetti’s score often lets the singers drive the musical drama, and Frizza followed their lead. The San Francisco Opera Chorus’s sound was lovely but not coordinated: individual voices stood out at the starts and ends of phrases (possibly the fault of their unusual physical arrangement on the stage).
As distorted as history looks through the lens of a Donizetti opera, it sounds fabulous. Let’s hope more (and similarly well-cast) Tudor queens operas await San Francisco audiences in future seasons.
The San Francisco Opera is presenting Roberto Devereux., Donizetti's 1837 Italian opera about the elderly Queen Elizabeth I and her ill-fated romance with the young Earl of Essex who she had executed for treason in 1601, two years before her own death in 1603. It's a tricky opera to pull off, partly because the four major roles are so difficult to sing, and partly because the narrative conventions of early 19th century bel canto opera tend to look absurd in the 21st century. It's a pleasure to report that this production is a major success, anchored by a bravura performance from soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Elizabetta in an intelligent staging by director Stephen Lawless which has been seen in Dallas and Toronto over the last decade.
The long overture, which contains an anachronistic snippet of God Save The Queen, is used as a soundtrack for a series of tableaux illustrating who Elizabeth I was in history for those who hadn't seen Bette Davis or Cate Blanchett in the movies or Glenda Jackson on television in Elizabeth R, culminating in the amusing representation above of the ill-fated Spanish Armada.
The real triumph of the production was musical, with propulsive conducting by Riccardo Frizza and another fine outing by the SF Opera Chorus who are used rather like a tragic Greek chorus providing sideline commentary for the principals' drama. There were also a pair of fine supporting performances by tenors Amitai Pati and Christian Pursell as Roberto's antagonists, Lord Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh.
The narrative invents a thwarted love affair between Roberto Devereax, Earl of Essex and Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, to ignite the jealousy and vengeance machinery of the plot, and tenor Russell Thomas as Roberto and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Sara have such extraordinarily creamy, gorgeous voices that you wanted them to run away together for a happy ending.
Baritone Andrew Manea, an Adler fellow in the Opera's training program, was rushed into the major role of the Duke of Nottingham at the last minute when the originally cast performer had to cancel after an accident. As the faithful friend of Roberto, and eventual jealous husband of Sara, he managed a respectable performance but wasn't at the same superstar level as the other three members of the love quadrangle.
The final scene of the opera is a long tour-de-force for Radvanovsky who has to act and sing through just about every major emotion imaginable, from vengeful to pleading to sorrowful, and she aces all of them. Reading on the internet from opera addicts who have seen her in previous renditions of this role at the Met and at the Canadian Opera, the verdict seems to be that she has outdone herself in this San Francisco outing.
I was distracted at Saturday's opening performance last Saturday, so returned for the second performance on Tuesday evening in balcony standing room with OperaVision screens, a perfect mixture of close-up sight and enveloping sound. Most people are scared away from opera by the high ticket prices, but that standing room ticket cost $10, which is easily the best deal in all of San Francisco. A great orchestra, some of the best singers in the world, and a beautiful opera house with world-class productions at that price is a genuine rarity, and I would encourage everyone to take advantage of it this fall. There are four more performances on Friday, September 14, on Tuesday, September 18, a matinee on Sunday, September 23, and a final outing on Thursday, September 27. Those last two performances also feature OperaVision in the balcony and all true local opera lovers will probably be there. (Click here for tickets.)
Via history, literature and art, Elizabeth I ranks as one of the most recognisable monarchs to reign over England and its dominions. In opera, she makes several appearances, most notably in Donizetti’s bel canto spectacular, Roberto Devereux, non-evident in the title but one of a trilogy of operas now referred to as “The Three Donizetti Queens” or “The Tudor Trilogy” that includes Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda. Little light filters through the plot that concerns Elizabeth’s obsession with the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, but in its musical language the exhilarating force of the bel canto style soars radiantly high. And it does so with monumental beauty in San Francisco Opera’s current season at the War Memory Opera House.
Scene from San Francisco Opera's Roberto Devereux Roberto Devereux is a multifaceted tragedy of personal desire, suspicion, betrayal and vengeance. English director Stephen Lawless’ angle brings a refreshing theatrical surprise and novelty to the stage without trivialising the gravitas that underlies the work. Making use of the melodic overture, which includes a tributary snippet of “God Save the Queen”, Lawless energises the work without delay as part of Benoît Dugardyn’s handsome set design - a sturdily built timber form mimicking London’s original Globe Theatre. This make-believe world of a stage within a stage concept serves well as a reminder that facts and truths easily evaporate in the service of artistic and dramatic license, as is the case here in Donizetti and his librettist Cammarano’s work.
An elderly Elizabeth enters and a whirling unfurling of memories begin around her. Vitrines appear, containing herself as a child between her bickering parents Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Shakespeare pops out of a basket, a ballet sequence slots in delightfully and cut-outs of miniaturised battle ships cross the stage while surtitles give a little history lesson above. Lawless cleverly gives the immediate sense that we are firmly planted in Elizabeth’s domain and it’s from her perspective that we’ll be looking.
Sondra Radvanovsky (centre) as Elizabeth I Even before making an impressive launch into her opening cavatina, star soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who sang the role in this Canadian Opera Company production in 2014, revealed just how engrossing and committed she is as an actor. While exuding imperiousness in her royal duties, it was in the personal distraction of Elizabeth’s obsession with Devereux, the physical fragility, fidgeting and the deeply engraved facial expressions that Radvanovsky brought unforgettable stature to her role. Most poignant, even heartbreaking, was the uncertainty and conflict Elizabeth encountered not as ruler, but as a woman. After having signed the execution order for the man she regrettably sent to his death, Elizabeth’s ‘performance’ was over. In a dressing-room-like setting, the regal attire hangs over the dresser and Elizabeth appears in her undergarments - wig-less, disoriented and unfulfilled as a woman. Then, before all, Radvanovsky delivered an astonishing showcase of vocal heights in the finale aria, “Vivi, ingrate.”
In this, the third of a six performance run, Radvanovsky glistened with supreme beauty in the top range while showing off her flexibility and striking steeliness. There were early issues getting the lower range to meat-up but Radvanovsky’s command of the immediate drama remained unwavering. With exciting trills and ornamentations, Radvanovsky sensibly exuded elegance rather than flamboyance, uncannily able to convey meaning as if rendered in naturally spoken text - a first rate performance!
Jamie Barton as Sara, Duchess of Nottingham As the married Sara, Duchess of Nottingham and Elizabeth’s rival for Devereux’s affection, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was on fire all night and was every bit as splendid in voice as her queen. Every part of the voice burned formidably and every emotion released with it seemed both heartfelt and real. Getting carried away as you do, Barton’s vocal qualities resembled a sensational dessert of stewed richness blended with soft, velvety textures and warm caramel. You simply wanted more.
Against these two powerhouse performances, both of which were large in theatrical gesture, the men by no means lacked presence - for a start, Ingeborg Bernerth’s highly detailed period costumes provided distinguished authority. And the men’s more subdued acting style certainly assisted in drawing more attention to the psychological trajectory of the women. American tenor Russell Thomas’ did the job smartly and robustly in the title role, the smoothness, resonance and clarity of his voice imparting genuineness and intent. Of significance, Thomas played his part with great sensitivity and understanding in his various duets with Radvanovsky and Barton. But the best of Thomas’ performance came in his final aria, “Come uno spirto angelico...” when, behind the bars of his cell, he sang achingly of Devereux’ refusal to betray Sara.
Romanian-American baritone and Adler Fellow Andrew Manea, who replaced Artur Rucinski, gave a strong-looking performance as the Duke of Nottingham though the depth of vocal colours was limited. The promise in the voice came in the shocking closing first scene of Act 3. In Sara's apartments, Nottingham pushes her to the bed in what no doubt will result in her rape and a great rush of adrenaline charged the voice in Manea’s finest moment. In the smaller roles of Lord Cecil and Walter Raleigh, Adler Fellow colleagues Amitai Pati and Christian Pursell were greatly satisfying and coercive, the men’s chorus less so with their often smudgy singing.
The San Francisco Opera Orchestra were in superb form and conductor Riccardo Frizza led a marvellously measured interpretation that elevated the passions, the tension and occasions of pomposity throughout while giving the singers ample space to amplify.
It’s taken almost 40 years for Roberto Devereux to return to the San Francisco Opera. For this masterful production just three performances remain. If you have any slight interest in opera, get yourself a ticket because I’d hate to think you’d have to wait another 40 years to see it on stage again.
Lightning struck again here when, after a wait of 39 years, San Francisco Opera unveiled a new production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux.
For this last opera of the so-called “Tudor Trilogy,” SFO spared no expense in assembling the world’s best bel canto singers to bring the tragedy to life. And what a mighty cast it was indeed, with the three acclaimed principals of 2014’s Norma returning for another triumph of bel canto.
No performance of Roberto Devereux is complete without a towering Elisabetta, and on Saturday night, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky totally owned the stage. She was everything; powerful yet expressive, domineering yet anxious, jealous yet caring. She completely lost herself in the role.
I did see her as Elisabetta when the Met opera presented Roberto Devereux two years ago, and I felt that her characterization on Saturday was fuller and more alive compared to back then. What captivated me the most was her mannerisms; she truly embodied an old queen; eccentric yet super powerful. You could not take your eyes off her every time she was on the stage.
I have always thought Radvanovsky had a metallic quality to her voice, and this time, it worked to her advantage. She jumped headlong into the score with no tentativeness whatsoever. By the time she reached the difficult rondo finale, “”Vivi, ingrato, a lei d’accanto… Quel sangue versato” she was so gripping that the house was completely silent, as if everybody was holding their breath.
And she knew it too! She smiled so wide and looked so relieved during the long standing ovation at the end, not unlike a person who just won a marathon! It was totally mesmerizing to watch!
Radvanovsky was duly supported by the other two leading singers, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and tenor Russell Thomas. They both gave extraordinary performances last Saturday. Fresh from winning performances as Fricka and Waltraute during last summer’s Ring, Barton proved herself one of opera’s great chameleons. Is there anything she can’t sing?
With her velvety voice, she sailed through the arias and duets. I loved her proclamation of her status as Elisabetta’s rival; it was particularly dramatic and full of suspense. Equally impressive was her duet with Nottingham at the start of Act 3; chilling and heartbreaking at the same time.
Thomas made the difficult title role sound like a child’s play and he imbued his performance with swagger and confidence. He seemed almost cocky. His Roberto wasn’t a wimpy one, and that made his bewilderment at the Tower Scene more pronounced. That Tower Scene was a sight to behold; made even more significant with the appearance of metal grille surrounding him, which only appeared for that scene.
I was a little disappointed when Polish baritone Artur Rucinski withdrew because of injury about a month, as I was looking forward to his Nottingham, but second-year Adler Fellow Andrew Manea made a worthy replacement. I thought he started a bit tentatively, but he gained strength as the opera progressed. The aforementioned duet with Sara at Act 3 found him at his best, icy and vengeful.
The supporting roles were handled efficiently by Adler Fellows Amitai Pati and Christian Pursell. Pati’s Lord Cecil was portrayed as truly evil, particularly during the chorus that opened Act 2, as he was shown to force fellow Royal Council members to sign Roberto’s death warrant, even threatened them with violence. It was a curious dramatic choice, in my opinion.
Conductor Riccardo Frizza led the SFO Orchestra in a finely-paced reading, and he supported the singers well. None of the arias and duets felt rushed or dragged. I particularly enjoyed the Sinfonia that was shaped distinctively and dramatic, brought out the “God Save the Queen” reference.
Above all, I loved the production by Stephen Lawless. The staging, which he created for Dallas Opera in 2009, and more significantly he revived for Canadian Opera Company in 2014 (also starring Radvanovsky), was simple, quiet, yet very effective in my opinion.
In his Director’s Note, Lawless noted that they set the opera
…in one performing space, namely the Globe Theatre. The operas mirror the Shakespearean idea of the monarch being like an actor on a stage, each having to perform before an audience and each having both public and private personas…. We have tried to create a narrative between the factual and the fictional, between the 16th and 19th centuries, with the chorus acting as spectators to history.
The late set designer Benoît Dugardyn created a detailed replica of the Globe Theatre as the background for the stage, complete with the two-tier of gallery levels, where the chorus stood as spectators as Lawless mentioned. A red velvet drape with gold pleats acted as the curtain for the acts, and The Great Hall at Westminster was marked with a backdrop of giant map of England, replaced with light blue curtain to identify Sara’s place at Nottingham House.
It was like a lesson in how to achieve the most with as little resources as possible! Costumes by Ingeborg Bernerth were handsomely Elizabethan, although I found it odd that Sara’s dress, in a striking shade of blue silk, was a different style from the rest of the ladies’ wardrobe.
What really worked for me was the tableau that unfolded during the Sinfonia; a view that I knew wasn’t shared with many reviewers of the Toronto production. It started with the old queen coming upon figurines of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and little Elisabetta in giant diorama display cases. Then both Henry VIII and Anne disappeared into the background leaving little Elisabetta by herself. Highlights of Elisabetta’s life followed suit, including a re-enactment of the destruction of the Armada!
In similar fashion, diorama cases made a return appearance at the end with the headless torsos of (what I assumed) Mary Stuart, Anne Boleyn and Roberto Devereux, culminated with Elisabetta herself entering an empty case, a move that I interpreted to symbolize that in the end, Elisabetta herself became one of the victims.
All in all, this was a perfect opera night for me, Shakespearean in stature with a cast that would be very hard to beat, and I am certain I will be making at least one return trip to the War Memorial before this run is over.
San Francisco Opera is currently presenting Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, for the first time since 1979. It's one of the so-called Tudor Queen Trilogy operas, although the three operas were not written as a group and were not connected in Donizetti's mind. (The others? Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda.)
I am not a big Donizetti fan, and in fact I've walked out of more of his operas - two - than those of any other composer: La Favorite, which got an ugly production and mediocre singing, and L'Elisir d'Amore, because I was there mostly for Ramon Vargas and he didn't sing that night. In retrospect, perhaps I should I have stayed for Alek Shrader, who is a good singer whom I have enjoyed a lot since then, in Partenope, Alcina, and Albert Herring.
In any event, while I'm not much of Donizetti fan, I am a fan of good singing, and the casting for Roberto Devereux could hardly be better, with tenor Russell Thomas in the title role, Sondra Radvanovsky as Elizabeth I, and Jamie Barton as Sara, Duchess of Nottingham. If that trio sounds familiar, they made a splendid team four years ago in Norma, which had the drama of Thomas joining the cast after the run had already started. Artur Rucinsky, who made his SFO debut last year as Giorgio Germont in La Traviata, was to have sung the Duke of Nottingham; he unfortunately had to withdraw a few weeks ago owing to injuries he suffered in a bicycle accident. Adler Fellow Andrew Manea replaced him.
I'm not going to say a whole lot about the production and direction, because I was very tired Friday night, to the point of feeling like I was coming down with a cold, and I mostly let the opera wash pleasantly over me, without a lot of analysis. I am neutral about placing the action in the Globe Theater, which is hung on an alleged rumor that Elizabeth appeared anonymously in one of Shakespeare's plays, apparently A Midsummer Night's Dream, as we're told during the overture.
Who knows? Certainly not me, but that explains this photo, which I thought must somehow be the last scene setting of Falstaff when I saw it in a trailer or ad or something. [Ed: see donkey above]
I thought the direction, by Stephen Lawless, okay - I mean, there's nothing awful but also nothing great.The libretto just doesn't give the director that much to work with. There aren't many confrontations or big crowd scenes; in those confrontations that take place, the musical pacing doesn't invite what you might think of as action. It's a pretty weak libretto! So there was a lot of standing and singing, and mostly that's okay with me, given the thin plotting and the fact that I really don't care about what's happening on stage.
The leading trio of Radvanovsky, Barton, and Thomas really could not be improved upon. They were even better than in 2014! In that Norma, I felt that Radvanovsky, who was marvelous technically, nonetheless sounded as though some of the spectacular effects she could pull off were just that: effects that weren't well-integrated dramatically or in the vocal line. There was none of that here after she was thoroughly warmed up (her entrance was a little bumpy), just a steady stream of magnificent singing, with every phrase utterly musical and sincere and integrated into the whole. Similarly, she really lived the role, most especially during her long last-act scene, with Elizabeth staggering around the stage in a nightgown, without her wig, and looking very much her age.
Thomas's career has really taken off in the last four or five years, I feel. He is being hired regularly, for leading roles, by major companies, and rightly so. He's got a beautiful, burnished tenor voice and he's an excellent actor - also a handsome man, which never hurts! Among current tenors singing dramatic roles, how many have Donizetti and Wagner, Bellini and heavy Verdi, in their repertory and sing them all so well?? He sang with even more subtlety and emotional range as Devereux than as Pollione.
Jamie Barton remains one of the great singers of her generation, a mezzo with easy high and low notes, a huge range, and the same versatility as Thomas: by July, 2019, we'll have heard her in SF in Bellini, Donizetti, Dvorak, and Wagner. She sang gorgeously and acted very well as Sara, a role that really could have used more direction. I would have liked to be more convinced that she just couldn't get out fast enough to save the life of Devereux. (Elizabeth may have a crush on him, but it's Sara he really loves, and vice versa; she is under her husband's thumb and maybe we need even more evidence of this.)
Andrew Manea, as the villain of the piece, the Duke of Nottingham, isn't quite ready to be singing leading roles at the international level. He sounded wooly and without much vocal core for most of the opera, with his voice firming up toward the end. His acting was good enough.
Riccardo Frizza conducted and was very good, with the music moving well and always sounding beautiful without becoming repetitive or oom-pah-pah-ish. I will say that the chorus sounded weirdly under-rehearsed and tentative, and that is very unusual.
I hope that Radvanovsky, Thomas, and Barton will be back in future seasons, and perhaps in Verdi (Il Corsaro, folks!).
* Notes *
A magnificently cast Roberto Devereux (opening scene pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) is the second offering in San Francisco Opera's 96th season. Though somewhat marred by a tepid staging, the tragic opera by Donizetti is a fine vehicle for vocal fireworks and held together by a confident orchestra and chorus.
Maestro Riccardo Frizza had the orchestra well in hand, clear and synchronized. From the first notes, the sound was declarative and bright, but never overwhelmed the singers. Frizza was never in a rush but also did not drag in the least.
Stephen Lawless's production from the Canadian Opera Company is set in the Globe Theatre, in fact we see Shakespeare pop up out of a trunk during the overture, along with lots of explanatory notes on the supertitle screen setting the context for us about Queen Elizabeth's time. It was odd, given that the piece is not historically accurate, and it was a lot of reading to do before the singing even started. Then again, I am not much of a fan of Donizetti's music, the overture refers to "God Save The Queen," which of course sounds like "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" to us Americans, so a distraction was welcome enough.
There were some weird elements to the staging, for instance Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, and a young Elizabeth appear in glass cases during the overture, Elizabeth thrashes around for a bit and then the cases move off the stage to be replaced by a new scenes. All of these were perfectly seamless, which made the set changes between actual scenes and acts all the more irritating. A red curtain came down as the stairways were moved or a bed was placed to indicate Sara's apartments while a note read "Please stay in your seats during this scene change" on the screen. This takes the audience out of the drama, giving them time to chat or look at their phones, and even though the changes were quick, the damage was done.
But the real reason for mounting this opera is certainly for the singers. Tenor Russell Thomas did not disappoint in the title role. His Act I "Nascondi, frena i palpiti" where Roberto Devereux denies loving anyone is convincing. He also sang "Come uno spirto angelico... Bagnato il sen di lagrime" with great beauty. I found the music here incongruously cheerful for the scene, in which Devereux is imprisoned in the Tower of London and awaiting death.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is the hapless Sara, beloved by Devereux and married off to the Duke of Nottingham through the machinations of Elizabeth I. Barton has a lovely, rich voice and she sings with utter ease. If memory serves, she nearly upstaged lead soprano Sondra Radvanovsky last time they sang together at San Francisco opera in Norma four years ago.
That was definitively untrue here. Radvanovsky is devastating as Elizabeth I, and it made you wonder why Donizetti didn't keep the title of the source text, Elisabeth d'Angleterre. Radvanovsky takes chances, her notes aren't perfectly clean and white, her voice crackles with emotion when necessary. Her voice is powerful and her rage is unmistakable. At times she seemed completely unhinged, yet she is able to show vulnerability, especially in the last scene.
* Tattling *
The opera was sparsely attended, at least in the balcony, quite undeserved given how strong the cast is. Standing room was even more empty than the night before, perhaps because rush tickets were available.
There many people using their devices in the upper balcony and more than one person was scolded by the ushers.
Starring in SF Opera's latest, the tenor calls on arts institutions to "look to their communities" for talent that attracts audiences.
ALL EARS When opera singer Joy Davidson heard tenor Russell Thomas sing in his high school choir in Miami, she asked him if he’d ever considered voice lessons. Thomas didn’t understand right away what a big deal that was.
“I thought that meant something was wrong with my voice,” said Thomas, who was at the opera house after a rehearsal. “She said, ’No, that means you have something to work with.’”
Thomas did work with his voice, and now he’s a rising star in opera: The New York Times called him “a tenor of gorgeously burnished power.” He just sung the title roles in Otello at the Hollywood Bowl and La Clemenza di Tito at the Salzburg Festival with Peter Sellars.
He’s in town, again for a title role, this time in the San Francisco Opera’s Roberto Devereux (through September 27).
Thomas didn’t learn about opera through his family or friends. He found it on his own, when he was eight years old, and after school was turning the dial on the radio and heard someone singing.
“That voice, and how they could make that sound intrigued me,” he said. “I wanted to know how that happened.”
Every day when he came home from school, Thomas would search for opera on the radio. He didn’t even think about being a singer then—that seemed too far away. But his choir teacher in high school got dress rehearsal passes for students to go to the opera. Once he saw the singers on stage, he knew that was what he wanted to do.
“The first one I saw was Carmen, with all the passion and the drama,” he said. “Opera has everything: visual arts, drama, music, singing, and literature. It’s the only art that has absolutely everything.”
Davidson became his voice coach, giving him lessons for free when he couldn’t afford to pay for them. She told him if he auditioned, he would get accepted to every school, and they would offer him a full scholarship. And they all did. He went to the school where Davidson was teaching, New World School of the Arts in Miami. In college, he auditioned for the chorus of the Florida Grand Opera. The choir director told him he needed to take it seriously—he says he was a bit of a party kid—and then he could make it a career.
Thomas says although the subjects in opera often aren’t regular people (such as in Roberto Devereux, which tells the story of Queen Elizabeth I and her ex-lover, the Earl of Essex) we all understand the emotions in opera.
“Everybody can relate to loving someone and losing love and being angry,” he said. “Opera is dealing with things all human beings feel and go through.”
Thomas would like to see more inclusivity in opera. And he thinks that starts with where decisions are made.
“There’s a lack of diversity generally in the office,” he said. “And because that’s what you know, the first person that’s going to come to your mind to play a role is not going to be someone who doesn’t look like you. This is a problem we have in classical arts. Yes, we’ve had great famous African American opera singers—Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, George Shirley—but they’re fewer African Americans stars in opera today than in the ’60s and ’70s.”
When opera companies post pictures of their young artists, often all of them, or nearly all, are white, Thomas says.
“Arts institutions should look like their communities, and often times they don’t,” he said. “So the stage doesn’t look inclusive, and then the audience isn’t inclusive. Minority groups will go and support something when they see other minorities onstage.”
Thomas says in Los Angeles when he performed Otelo, the audience was diverse.
“They see someone who looks like them, then they’re interested in what’s going on,” he said. “When I did Otello in Atlanta, three of the main cast members were black and the audience was full of black people. They said they don’t usually see that in the audience, but you would if you thought a little more about this, and not just in Porgy and Bess.”
Thomas is hoping that companies will pay attention to who makes up their cast, and not only during Black History Month. He mentions Sellars, who he has worked with several times, and who recently did the libretto for composer John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West at the San Francisco Opera.
“You look at what Peter Sellars did there, and this is in every show he does,” he said. “It’s never just all white people on the stage. He makes a concerted effort to show that these people can be black or Asian or Latino, and the world needs more people like him for the survival of classical art.”
Riccardo Frizza grew up in Brescia, a town in Northern Lombardy, close to the city of Milan. He got interested in music when he was only five years old and began playing a little keyboard at home. Although neither one of his parents was a musician, they soon recognised the talent of the young Riccardo and sent him for piano lessons. He later continued his studies at the Milan Conservatoire. During that period he greatly admired Leonard Bernstein and later was influenced and looked up to such luminaries as Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti. Frizza also studied with composer Elisabetta Brusa and conductor Gilberto Serembe who both contributed to his artistry and to whom he feels indebted. Although our conversation was via e-mail and not in person, I found Maestro Frizza an approachable, kind, open and interesting personality. His insight into music, the composers and the art of conducting is fascinating and his humility shown through the moving tributes he pays to his teachers and great conductors who influenced him is commendable. Maestro Frizza is an outstanding conductor with an impeccable technique, as well as an artist who can involve the audience, expressing all the emotions and feelings of a piece of music. I had great pleasure in learning his answers to my questions. As one reads through the interview, not only the captivating portrait of a musically gifted musician emerges but also that of a charming human being. Enjoy.
MMB: Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in music and conducting?
RF: I grew up in Brescia, a city in northern Lombardy not far from Milan. I got interested in music at the age of five when I began to play a little keyboard in my house. I started to reproduce the church song I was listening to at the Sunday morning kids’ dedicated mass. Even though neither of my parents is a musician, they soon sent me for piano lessons. My father loves classical music and my mother began later to discover it while I was growing up as a young musician and now she’s an opera lover.
MMB: Are there are any artists, musicians, other conductors that were a great influence for you or that you look up to as a role model? Please tell us a little whether yes or no.
RF: When I was a student and attending classes at the Milan Conservatoire I was influenced by Leonard Bernstein. I remember that when he passed away I was truly touched, and it took days for me to be comforted. Sometimes we think that certain figures are immortals and the day you realize that they are as human as you are, it is difficult to understand. Later, in my twenties, I considered Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti as the musicians to follow – not just because they were Italian but because they were (and Muti still is) at the top level in both the symphonic and operatic sectors. Abbado in Berlin and Muti at La Scala: the best orchestra in the world and the greatest temple of opera.
MMB: I believe this coming September you will be conducting Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux for the first time at the San Francisco Opera. How excited are you about debuting a work? And how do you prepare for a piece you have not conducted before as opposed to one you did?
RF: Yes, it is the first time I’ll conduct Devereux and I’m happy to do it in San Francisco with this cast and this orchestra. It is my fourth appearance with this company and my relationship with them has been always at the best level of musical rendition. We did other bel canto operas and they know my expectations and I know perfectly well what they are able to give me. Music is always an exchange of effort and energy. As I always do, I prepare the score beginning with a deep knowledge of the libretto and all the aspects of the composition. We know a lot about Donizetti’s life and the events around the time his works were being composed. Afterwards I start to look into the notes. This process is universal in my point of view. If you don’t know the dramaturgy of the opera you can’t understand the composer’s choices.
MMB: What do you see as your main challenge in Roberto Devereux?
RF: The main thing is to give the right pacing to the opera, with the right tempos. If you take a wrong tempo you can really cause trouble for the singers on stage. Devereux is very difficult to sing and performing it without cuts can be really hard to tackle, especially for Elisabeth and Roberto.
MMB: And, in musical terms, where would you place Roberto Devereux in relation to other, perhaps more popular Donizetti operas (for e.g. L’elisir d’amore or Lucia di Lammermoor)? Why?
RF: Donizetti, as many other composers, wrote good and less good works. Roberto is a very modern opera relative to the time when it was written (1837). I do consider they have something in common. Roberto and Lucia have the great scene for the prima donna and a great scene for the tenor. The difference is that in Lucia the tenor closes the drama (even if the title refers to her) and in Roberto it is Elizabeth who ends the work with a tremendous scene (even though the drama is called Roberto Devereux). Roberto is even more musically interesting than Lucia because it opens a new way in the architecture of the composition. For instance, the end of the first act is without the great choral scene, or for example, Roberto’s first appearance on stage is not presented with a ‘cavatina’ as happens in Lucia but because his appearance on stage is propelled by the events of the drama. This was something new in Italian opera. L’elisir d’amore is a masterpiece. For the first time the comic and the pathetic are combined. All three operas are masterpieces and they brought many innovations to the history of Italian opera.
MMB: Donizetti composed a vast number of operas. Some have been largely forgotten and are seldom performed (and when at all is usually in concert) and never staged. One of these is Dom Sébastien. Musically I think it is a masterpiece (historically it is very inaccurate but that is not the point here), however I can only remember two concert performances, several years ago, at the Royal Opera House in London, conducted by Mark Elder, which were recorded live. Do you agree with my view of this opera? Why or why not? And why do you think such a masterful work is never staged and so rarely performed?
RF: Dom Sébastien, Il duca d’Alba, La favorite, Maria di Rohan. There are so many fantastic operas by Gaetano Donizetti which unfortunately are not performed very often. The Donizetti Foundation of Bergamo and its Festival Donizetti are committed to stage rare works the way that Opera Rara, in London, does. Often, if not always, the fame of a specific bel canto opera is linked to a great singer. In our times operas such as Norma, Medea, Lucia, Bolena and many others are famous because Callas, Caballé, Sutherland or Gruberova sang them during their careers. Today opera houses such as the Met, San Francisco Opera or La Scala are staging the Tudor cycle or Bellini’s operas because we have great new divas such as Radvanovsky, Netrebko, DiDonato or Yoncheva who are committed to singing them.
MMB: Your repertoire is predominantly Italian, with frequent performances of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Although these composers are referred to as the bel canto composers of the 19th Century they are very different in essence and there are features that are more common in a certain composer than in another. For example, Bellini has to my mind a more pronounced legato line than Rossini while Rossini displays more fireworks, generally speaking of course. As a conductor what differences do you feel there are between Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini? And how do you approach the score of each composer’s operas?
RF: The composer I have performed the most is actually Verdi. I have conducted twenty-one of his twenty-seven operas. Nevertheless, I’m very familiar with bel canto composers. As you said Bellini’s works have more legato lines but that is partially untrue. Rossini needs to be considered the ‘father’ of Bellini and Donizetti. We can’t say that Rossini didn’t compose beautiful legato lines. If we think about the comic operas probably yes, but if we think about the serious titles as Semiramide or Maometto or Guillaume Tell we discover that Bellini took great inspiration from them. And more if we open all the cuts that usually are done in Bellini, we see that there is much more virtuosity than expected. I conducted Il Pirata in Milan last June without cuts and it was very interesting to see how close the relationship was with Rossini. As a conductor, the difference is the style. Rossini is classical and that’s the way to treat him. Bellini is the romantic and the sinuosity of his lines has to be played as we interpret Chopin’s Nocturnes. Donizetti in my opinion is very different. His music is more consistent, less evanescent. The use of the ‘declamato’ in the recitatives is prominent and this fact gives a lot of strength to the drama.
MMB: You also conduct many of Verdi’s works. In relation to Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini what challenges do you face when conducting Verdi? Do you approach Verdi in a different manner?
RF: Verdi created a revolution in Italian Opera but my way to approach him is not any different from other composers when I study his scores. Verdi’s music is more closed to the psychological aspects of the characters he writes for. This is the essence of his music and theatre.
MMB: I have seen that Mozart is also part of your repertoire. Mozart is the classical composer par excellence so presumably the approach to his work is different than that to Verdi’s, Rossini’s or Puccini’s work for example. Do you agree? And if so, in what way would your approach be different? And what in your opinion are the main challenges in conducting an opera by Mozart like Figaro or Così?
RF: Paradoxically I find Mozart closer to Verdi than Rossini, even though Mozart’s and Rossini’s ages are less far apart. This is because the theatre is more sincere than Rossini’s or Bellini’s. Così or Don Giovanni treat subjects which were close to the society of his time, as Verdi did in Rigoletto or Traviata. Verdi wanted a true theatre as Mozart did before him.
MMB: I know you have conducted orchestral/symphonic works but you appear to do mostly opera. Did you specialise in opera and is it your preference? Why?
RF: Being a conductor means being a musician. I don’t believe in specializations. I do both things because I love music. I love Verdi as I love Mahler. Opera is an important part of my life because I come from the country where this genre was born and as an artist, I feel I want to be an ambassador for the culture of my country. If you ask me if I do prefer opera I say Yes! First of all because I love theatre in general and because is more difficult and challenging to be in the pit than on a stage.
MMB: From your perspective as a conductor what do you do differently when preparing to conduct an opera or preparing to conduct a symphonic work?
RF: No differences. You have to look deeply between the notes to understand why the composer wrote it that way rather than another.
MMB: Whenever I’ve listened to your recordings or seen you perform I always thought that your technical execution is impeccable but you also manage (and many conductors don’t however brilliant they are technically) to achieve great expression and communicate all types of emotions to the audience. Is this a natural skill? And if not, how do you achieve it?
RF: Honestly, I don’t know. What is certain is that as Bernstein was in life, I’m a free musician. I do not listen to recordings when I study a new score. I want to be a ‘virgin’ learning a new piece and I’m not afraid to do a rubato or accelerando when I feel it.
MMB: When you conducted Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans at the Sferisterio Opera Festival in Macerata, critic David Oliver from GBOPERA web magazine, described your style as, and I quote: ‘Riccardo Frizza impeccably directed l’Orchestra regionale delle Marche, from a baroque direction (although with a decidedly neo-classical style)…’ – would you agree with the neo-classical style? Why or why not?
RF: I do not understand what ‘neo-classical’ style means here. I did not have a baroque orchestra, it was a modern orchestra. In my knowledge, ‘neo-classical style’ is the tonal music of the XXI century.
MMB: I know you’ve studied with composer Elisabetta Brusa and conductor Gilberto Serembe for example. What do you feel was the most important thing they taught you and why?
RF: Elisabetta Brusa is a great composer. Gilberto a great pedagogue in addition to being a great conductor. He put the baton in my right hand and gave me the basis of the authentic Italian school of conducting. He was a student of Mario Gusella and Franco Ferrara. Both of them were the heirs of the Toscanini and Antonio Guarnieri’s school. I’m so grateful to have met Gilberto and had him in my life. He introduced me to his wife Elisabetta and I moved to Milan Conservatoire from my hometown of Brescia for her to become my teacher. It was the best thing I did in my life when I was a student. She taught me harmony and counterpoint and music analysis with the classic method while other teachers were doing the experimental courses. Even today I still feel the impact of having had her as my teacher. She is an extremely talented composer and a master in orchestration.
MMB: If you could only give one piece of advice to a new, young conductor what would you say?
RF: Be yourself and believe in your skills. Be persistent with your ideas and avoid being the bad copy of someone else.
MMB: When you conducted Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in 2017 at the Teatro La Fenice, in Venice, critic Alan Neilson from Opera Wire was quite complimentary of your choice of using the glass harmonica rather than the flute during Lucia’s mad scene. Why did you take this decision and what do you think it brought to the scene?
RF: With the agreement of the artistic director of La Fenice I decided it was the right time to introduce it to the Venetian audience and let them understand how truly modern this outdated instrument was in the ‘mad scene’ context. Using the glass harmonica in this scene is essential because the glacial sound it produces makes the scene more spectral (‘Ohimè! Sorge il tremendo fantasma’) but at the same time it is sweet (‘Il dolce suono’). This was the first Donizetti idea which he took directly from the libretto. He also approved of the use of flute because it wasn’t easy to have that instrument but in my opinion the first idea was the right one.
MMB: You have worked extensively with Juan Diego Flórez, in the bel canto repertoire, especially years ago when he was not yet as famous as he is now. How important was this collaboration for your career if at all? Why?
RF: I worked often with him in the early years of our careers and I’m so grateful; it provided me with the possibility to begin experiencing opera. I had never conducted an opera before I met him. I was a young music director at the Brescia Symphony at that time.
MMB: I find you are a very ‘sympathetic’ conductor to singers. Personally I think it is a great skill and the best approach to conducting opera. Would you agree? Why?
RF: I have great respect for singers because I’m married to the soprano Davinia Rodriguez and I know perfectly well how hard it is to do this job. I would say much harder than being a conductor. The singer on stage is alone and the vocal health depends on too many things. I try to be respectful of their voices because each one is different and as a conductor I have to understand where the limit of each voice is. I can’t push them; I must help them to bring out, to take out the best of their instruments. I’m a passionate voice lover. I think it is the most beautiful instrument.
MMB: Is there a singer or an orchestra or both that you have not yet worked with and would really like to?
RF: I would love to work with Elīna Garanča and Jonas Kaufmann. They are the only two artists whom I have never had the opportunity to meet. I would love to do my debut at ROH Covent Garden one day.
MMB: You were appointed musical director for the 2018 Donizetti Festival in Bergamo. How important was this position for you? Why? And what do you think you can bring to the festival?
RF: I think it is very important because I have the opportunity to discover rarities and be part of the Donizetti Renaissance. Our mission is to give Donizetti the Festival he deserves as Rossini has in Pesaro and Verdi in Parma.
MMB: What are your plans for the future? What are you looking forward to besides your debut in Roberto Devereux and why?
RF: For the future, I’m committed to the Festival but I’m really looking forward to being the musical director of an opera company. I have had many opportunities in the past but postponed them because I was intent on gaining experience and making an international career. Now I feel ready to broaden my accumulated experience.
MMB: As a performer you must spend a lot of time travelling and staying in different countries. How do you balance your career and all the travel with your personal/family life?
RF: It is difficult but I’m lucky to be married to a performer and even if it is very complicated to be apart, we love our job and we’re bringing up a happy and whimsical seven year-old daughter.
MMB: What do you enjoy doing to relax during your free time? Do you have any hobbies? If so what?
RF: Free time? I do not know what it means…but I love to cook.
MMB: And finally, do you listen to music just for the pleasure of it or do you rather not, as music is your profession?
RF: Music fills my time. When I do not rehearse or perform, I study. Rarely do I go to concerts.
MMB: Maestro Frizza, it has been a pleasure to exchange this e-mail conversation with you and thank you very much for your time.
IT HAS BEEN NEARLY forty years since San Francisco Opera produced Roberto Devereux, as a vehicle for diva Montserrat Caballé, who sang just a single performance of the SFO run before cancelling due to illness. The company’s return to Donizetti’s Tudor drama this fall was a triumph, with soprano Sondra Radvanovsky starring as Elisabetta in the local premiere of Stephen Lawless’s production. With an ebullient supporting cast and masterful music direction from conductor Riccardo Frizza, the opening night performance on September 8 cast a powerful spell. Radvanovsky eschewed conventional diva glamor, choosing to embody the elderly queen in bold dramatic strokes. Her Elisabetta appeared regal before her court but was revealed in private to be a frail, tremulous, and vengeful woman; Ingeborg Bernerth's excellent costume designs delineated the shift between these spheres. Radvanovsky’s large, penetrating soprano is aptly majestic, and she sang Elisabetta with a ravishing mix of steely command and poignant allure; after a few moments of smudged passagework in her first scene, her generous tone and unfaltering musicianship were simply thrilling to hear. Her assumption built in intensity as the evening progressed; she seemed to allow her fury to expand by degrees, revealing new depths of emotion until her riveting aria-finale, “Vivi, ingrate,” was capped by a breathtakingly propulsive cabaletta.
Radvanovsky was in excellent company. In the title role, tenor Russell Thomas made an indelible impression. His sturdy physique and clear, unforced tenor yielded an ardent Act I duet with Sarah, and he sang with elegant line in his Tower of London aria, “Come uno spirito angelico.” As Sarah, Jamie Barton deployed her velvety, richly colored mezzo with beauty and urgency to limn the character’s desire and anguish. Andrew Manea’s dark-hued baritone registered with potency as the Duke of Nottingham. The Lawless production, first seen at Canadian Opera Company in 2014, features scenic designs by the late Benoît Dugardyn that place the action in a unit set modeled on Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. During the overture, the staging offers a kind of whirlwind backstory: vitrines displayed the figures of young Elizabeth, flanked by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and Elizabeth sent Essex into battle amid maps and cardboard ships. The director’s scheme included a claustrophobic chamber for Sarah and Nottingham, and a metallic enclosure for the Tower scene. Lawless also proved effective in evoking the public nature of the opera’s events; Ian Robertson’s chorus sang with gusto throughout, serving as observers of the regime while courtiers Cecil (Amitai Pati) and Raleigh (Christian Pursell), smirked and skulked and assumed watchful positions.
Frizza conducted an ideally paced performance, driving the action and illuminating the shifting allegiances, emotions, and sheer brilliance of Donizetti’s score in each new episode.
San Francisco. War Memorial Opera House. 8-IX-2018. Roberto Devereux (Gaetano Donizetti). Sondra Radvanovsky (Elisabetta), Russell Thomas (Roberto Devereux), Jamie Barton (Sara), Andrew Manea (Duque de Nottingham), Amitai Pati (Lord Cecil), Christian Pursell (Raleigh). San Francisco Opera Orchestra. Dirección escénica: Stephen Lawless. Dirección musical: Riccardo Frizza.
Aunque parezca mentira, Donizetti es un filón todavía relativamente inexplorado en los EE.UU. En mayor medida que en Europa, su presencia en las temporadas está dominada por el trío de Don Pasquale, Elisir y Lucia, mientras que un no desdeñable porcentaje del público sospecha que un señor que escribió casi 70 óperas no puede haberlas hecho con el suficiente cuidado como para que haya más que valgan la pena. Y, sin embargo, las hay –y vaya si las hay–. Afortunadamente, la amplia producción del bergamasco se está aprovechando cada vez más en los teatros norteamericanos. En las últimas dos o tres décadas, esta exploración ha estado liderada principalmente por las óperas popularmente –pero no en su origen– agrupadas como la trilogía Tudor: Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda y Roberto Devereux. Las tres ofrecen un papel protagonista extraordinario y exigentísimo, irresistible vehículo de lucimiento para las divas que se atrevan con él y consigan salir airosas.
La más reciente en esta serie de grandes sopranos que se han enfrentado a las reinas donizettianas es la estadounidense Sondra Radvanovsky, quien hace tres años se planteó el reto de cantar la trilogía completa en una temporada del MET. Siendo una soprano dramática, con un instrumento formidable pero que había pasado por papeles verdianos muy pesados, este proyecto belcantista generó algún escepticismo inicial. Sin embargo, si bien estos papeles contienen muchas agilidades, se trata siempre de una coloratura dramática, que ante todo requiere una voz de entidad. Pero la pasta vocal y fuerza dramáticas se encuentran en abundancia en esta cantante, que alcanzó un gran éxito y nos dejó lo que es ya un hito de la historia reciente del MET, en particular con tres escenas finales para el recuerdo.
Ahora, en el inicio de la temporada 2018/2019, la SF Opera vuelve a contar con Radvanovsky para la última ópera de esta oficiosa trilogía. Roberto Devereux es, seguramente, la obra más satisfactoria dramáticamente de las tres. El libreto de Cammarano cuenta una historia sencilla, un triángulo amoroso en el que la mujer despechada es una reina y el galán es aún encima un noble rebelde, con lo que su trágico final parece inevitable. Sin embargo, la estructura está muy bien armada y la tensión nunca decae –destaca aquí el compacto segundo acto, que Donizetti plantea como un continuo que anticipa los planteamientos de maestros posteriores–. Aspectos dramáticos al margen, de lo que no cabe duda es de que la Elisabetta es vocalmente la más temible de las tres reinas. En efecto, se trata de un papel de soprano assoluto, con una tesitura imposible y que necesita de todas las armas del arsenal sopranil.
Ante semejante reto, Radvanovsky no pareció arredrarse. Ya en su aria de salida demostró una total entrega y dejó impactado al público sanfranciscano, quien la premió con una larga y entusiasta ovación. A partir de ahí la intensidad no decayó y fue una delicia verse envuelto en el torrente Radvanovsky, disfrutando de su gran aptitud para desatar y recoger la voz, sin perder expresividad. En este aspecto fue claro el salto de calidad desde su Elisabetta de Nueva York. Si entonces los primeros actos fueron algo más cautos, pareciendo reservar para los momentos principales, ahora funciona a plena marcha desde el principio y se aprecian algunos detalles más personales –lo mismo sucedió con su Anna Bolena de Toronto la pasada primavera–. También ha logrado profundizar en la caracterización, que nos presenta con muchísima fuerza una mujer de tremendo carácter, que procura ocultar sus también tremendas vulnerabilidades hasta que todo colapsa. Ciertamente, si miramos todo con lupa se aprecian imperfecciones, como una articulación italiana y una coloratura mejorables. Pero ante una creación de esta intensidad y hondura dramática no queda sino quitarse el sombrero. En definitiva, estamos ante una soprano que atraviesa un estado de forma exultante y es consciente de ello, lo que le permite entregarse a fondo de principio a fin.
Dicho todo esto, esta obra no se reduce solo a la Elisabetta. Afortunadamente, la SF Opera ha conseguido completar un trío protagonista de campanillas, con la participación de Jamie Barton (Sara) y Russell Thomas (Roberto Devereux). El del conde de Essex, en particular, es un papel de mucha enjundia, aunque a menudo quede totalmente sepultado por el volcán de Elisabetta. No ha sido el caso de un Thomas que nos ha presentado un Devereux particularmente carismático, seguro de sí mismo, lo cual genera un satisfactorio contraste cuando, perplejo, contempla su destino en la magistral escena de la Torre. La vocalidad de este tenor es totalmente adecuada al papel y Thomas canta siempre con gusto e intención detrás de cada palabra. Espero que continúe profundizando en el Devereux –este era su debut– pues, si logra limar alguna aspereza técnica creo que se puede convertir en uno de sus mejores papeles, si no lo es ya.
También debutante era la Sara de Jamie Barton, quien continúa saltando de los papeles wagnerianos a los belcantistas. Pero sus recientes Frickas y Waltrautes no han hecho mella en un registro agudo deslumbrante. Su dominio de la técnica vocal es admirable y estamos además ante una mezzo con una voz capaz de enfrentarse de tú a tú ante la estentórea Radvanovsky. Si acaso se le podría pedir una mayor garra interpretativa, aunque en este aspecto parte de la responsabilidad está en una dirección escénica algo floja para su personaje. Es importante también mencionar la gran química existente entre estos tres artistas, ya muy acostumbrados a trabajar juntos –en la propia San Francisco han sido Norma, Adalgisa y Pollione recientemente–.
Cerraba los papeles principales el Nottingham de Andrew Manea, en sustitución de un lesionado Artur Rucinsky. Manea es un Adler fellow, un miembro del programa de jóvenes cantantes de la compañía, que habitualmente se encargan de papeles comprimarios y de covers de otros de mayor entidad. En este sentido cabe valorar positivamente el desempeño de este barítono. El papel todavía lo supera y se mostró algo rígido tanto en escena como vocalmente, sobre todo al inicio de la ópera. Poco a poco, sin embargo, se fue soltando y terminó apuntando buenas maneras, aunque todavía le falte recorrido. Finalmente, los también Adler fellows Amitai Pati y Christian Pursell fueron unos correctos Cecil y Raleigh.
Riccardo Frizza, experimentado director donizettiano, demostró siempre gran solvencia y afinidad con el material. Destacó sobre todo en un exquisito acompañamiento a los cantantes, que se vieron siempre muy bien apoyados y concertados. Quizás faltó un punto de tensión en determinados momentos. Hubo, eso sí, una decisión musical discutible: suprimir la repetición de la stretta en «Questo addio fatale, estremo», el dúo entre Essex y Sara que cierra el primer acto. No entiendo este corte, dado que no se gana más que un minuto, máxime teniendo en cuenta el alto nivel de ambos solistas.
La producción de Stephen Lawless, que se ha visto ya en Dallas y Toronto, juega con la idea de que las vidas de estos personajes nunca pueden ser del todo privadas. Para ello, la escenografía diseñada por el recientemente fallecido Benoît Dugardyn –a quien iba dedicada esta función– ambienta la acción en el centro del famoso Globe Theatre londinense. De vez en cuando se aprecian nobles poblando las galerías y espiando, mientras que el centro del escenario se modifica con sencillez pero eficiencia para recrear los diferentes ambientes –las estancias de Sara, la celda de la Torre–. Durante la obertura Lawless escenifica una pantomina resumiendo la historia de Isabel I, que no aporta mucho pero tampoco llega a distraer demasiado de la música. Para reforzar su concepción de unas vidas totalmente expuestas, Enrique VIII y Ana Bolena aparecen en vitrinas – la propia Elisabetta acabará metida en una al final–.Ciertos detalles no funcionan –algunas posturas de Devereux, un Nottingham con manos ensangrentadas al final–.
Lo mejor que se puede decir de la producción es que está verdaderamente al servicio de una Radvanovsky que saca mucho jugo a cada imperioso gesto de la reina y a cada temblor que delata su fragilidad. Esto es especialmente notorio en la escena final. En muchas producciones, al alcanzar el clímax la reina se quita la peluca y desvela la mujer anciana que hay debajo –un gesto característico de Edita Gruberova, por ejemplo–. Sin embargo, aquí se nos muestra en camisón y medio calva desde el inicio de la escena. Lo que en otras manos podría llevar casi al esperpento, permite a Radvanovsky encontrar petróleo dramático. A pesar de empezar ya casi desquiciada es capaz de ir incrementando la tensión y de llevarnos por una espiral de demencia hasta llegar a un «Quel palco di sangue rosseggia… Dell’anglica terra sia giacomo il re!» que dejó al público sin aliento en sus butacas y puso un broche de oro al inicio de la 96.ª temporada de la SF Opera.