The new Metropolitan Opera season also marks the beginning of a rare challenge for one singer. American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky performs all three of Gaetano Donizetti’s Tudor queens: Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I. Befitting the regal, overwrought leads, they require stamina and extreme high notes. Radvanovsky’s exploration of Tudor history commenced with Anna Bolena. Vocally and dramatically, she is ready for the historical pageant of passion and intrigue.
Donizetti’s (1797–1848) ‘Three Queens’ are not official opera sequels like Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung or Philip Glass’s Portrait Trilogy. Each is a prime example of bel canto, or beautiful singing — operas in picturesque places with pretty music placing the lead female at the mercy of her husband, boyfriend, other relatives, or the general population. The fascination with Anna Bolena (1830), Maria Stuarda (1835), and Roberto Devereux (1837) is that the soprano undertakes all three roles. Each queen requires a coloratura soprano voice — light yet high and extremely flexible. Sondra Radvanovsky established her career singing operas by Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), whose heroines also get pushed to extremes but with more character dimension, vocal characterization, orchestration and plot twists.
The last singer who sang ‘Three Queens’ locally was Beverly Sills (1929-2007) over 40 years ago. When she sang with The New York City Opera, it was newsworthy enough to put her on the cover of TIME magazine. Internet streaming and HD transmissions are a great convenience for opera fans, but classical music had a more definite presence in an era before cable, print media, and vinyl. The Brooklyn-born Sills’ outsized voice and warm public persona made her a genuine celebrity who sang not only with a young Plácido Domingo but also with the Muppets.
Beverly Sills once performed all three queens within a week (something she admitted shortened her career). Sondra Radvanovsky will not. After performances of Anna Bolena in October, she returns to the role in January 2016 before taking on Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux through April. She sang the ill-fated mother of England’s greatest ruler like someone who lost everything. Her voice expressed pride, anger, fear, and like a true bel canto heroine, confusion. The real Anne Boleyn faced her death bravely. Her operatic counterpart is hysterical, confusing her execution for her wedding day and childhood. Director Sir David McVicar added a devastating touch to Anna’s ‘Mad Scene’ by having her ladies-in-waiting cut off her hair. Conductor Marco Armiliato and the Met Orchestra provided her and the rest of the cast solid support.
Historical fictionalization of the Tudor dynasty (1485-1603) is centuries old. Anna Bolena’s facts are more or less intact. Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s Henry VIII (1613) concludes with the King gushing, ‘when I am in heaven I shall desire to see what this little child does and praise my maker,’ over the newborn Elizabeth I. In Anna Bolena, Enrico (Henry VIII, bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov) coldly refers to his middle child as ‘her daughter.’ Frustrated with the lack of a male heir, Enrico is anxious to remove the woman for whom he severed ties with the Catholic Church to marry. His short, oversexed attention span has turned to Anna’s lady-in-waiting Giovanna Seymour (‘Jane,’ played by mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton).
A plan is set in motion when Anna’s first love, Lord Riccardo ‘Richard’ Percy (tenor Stephen Costello), is allowed to return to court. Boyish musician Mark Smeaton (mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford) and her brother Lord Rochefort (bass-baritone David Crawford) catch the Queen in a compromising situation with Percy. Donizetti and librettist Felice Romani devised a tense, plausible scene where the love-struck Smeaton hides in Anna’s bedroom, which Lord Rochefort guards while Anna meets with Percy to send him away.
Perhaps Anna and Jane confronted each other. Anna and Giovanna’s duet could have escalated into a catfight, but the Queen recognizes that she and the future Queen are victims not of their making. Jane Seymour provided the male heir but lacked Anna’s character, yet Jamie Barton is anything but uninteresting. Giovanna‘s own impossible situation is as sympathetic as Anna’s, and it’s hard to dismiss Barton standing apart from the others as she watches her predecessor’s arrest. The recipient of the 2015 Richard Tucker Award (a prestigious career grant in honor of the great American tenor) has a powerful instrument. She and Sondra Radvanovsky met and matched each other; this was the highlight of the performance.
The real Henry VIII bore a closer resemblance to both Charles Laughton and Emil Jannings — not Nathaniel Parker who played him during the recent Broadway run of Wolf Hall or Ildar Abdrazakov. Still, the appealing bass-baritone has no problem making Enrico childish and manipulative. His feigned hurt feelings over Anna’s alleged infidelity were deliberately unbelievable because he knew he could get away with it. Donizetti did not provide the King with an aria — delightfully ironic — depriving the opportunity of fully appreciating Abdrazakov’s resonant voice, which still sounded gorgeous making good on threats.
The audience knows what awaits Anna Bolena when the final red curtain falls. For Sondra Radvanovsky, it is also a beginning.
Anna Bolena continues through October 13, 2015. The rest of Sondra Radvanovsky’s schedule for Anna and the other Tudor queens is available at The Metropolitan Opera.