Radvanovsky riveting in Met’s “Maria Stuarda”

Sat Jan 30, 2016 at 1:46 pm

Elza van den Heever as Elisabetta and Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

It’s dangerous to describe anything as “historic” when discussing current events at the Metropolitan Opera. That sort of label naturally invites comparisons–often unflattering–to countless great moments in the company’s storied history, and often ends up sounding hyperbolic.

Yet with Sondra Radvanovsky’s tour this season through the Donizetti Tudor queens, one really does get the sense of witnessing a historic achievement. Her performance in Anna Bolena was a thrilling start to her quest for the triple crown, and Friday’s premiere of Maria Stuarda continued the cycle in superb fashion, as the star soprano–battling bravely through an announced head cold–gave a riveting portrayal of the tragic Queen of Scots.

Traces of any illness were only barely detectable: here and there a cloud might pass briefly over a sustained high note, but if anything, a slight sense of weariness only strengthened her image as an exhausted woman who has been imprisoned in a dozen castles over twenty years.

Radvanovsky’s coloratura is solid, though not outstanding, but her voice has developed into a gorgeous, amber instrument with soft warmth in the middle range and a fierce blaze at the top. What’s more, her voice is gigantic, carrying effortlessly into the house and preserving every nuance along the way.

From her fierce confrontation with Queen Elizabeth to her heartbreaking scenes as she awaits execution in Act II, she was totally committed to her role, channeling her conviction into her singing. She floated some of her trademark pianissimos in an emotional but firmly resolved account of her confession aria, and followed with searing power in “Ah, se un giorno,” as she bid farewell to her beloved Leicester.

As her English counterpart Elizabeth I, the South African soprano Elza van den Heever sang with impressive authority of her own, showing a bright, clear, and powerful voice. She is severely hindered, however, by David McVicar’s inexplicable direction, which has her tromping rigidly about the stage like some bizarrely butch automaton monarch with lower back problems.

The opera is not particularly generous to any characters beyond the rival queens, but the men of the cast made strong impressions with the material they had. Celso Albelo made a fine debut as Leicester, overcoming some initial awkwardness on stage and ultimately giving a passionate account of the role, singing clearly and idiomatically. Kwangchul Youn made a strong impression as Talbot, sporting a rich, dark-chocolate voice. Best of all the supporting cast was Patrick Carfizzi as Cecil, booming with authority.

Riccardo Frizza’s conducting was clean, but not much more than that, lacking in imagination and bounce. Frizza seemed to want to paint with the orchestra when a crisper articulation was called for. The Met chorus, often notably powerful, showed a more tender side on Friday in their many lamentations for the condemned royal.

McVicar’s production is not particularly inspired, characterized mostly by a dark, pervading dullness. A jester juggling torches appears for Elizabeth’s court scene in Act I, and thereafter the audience has little to look at. There are a few touches, though, that enliven the characters–we see both of the queens without their wigs in touchingly human moments, Elizabeth before her audience with Leicester, and Mary as she prepares to face the headsman.

Whatever the failings, though, Friday’s premiere was all about giving Radvanovsky her star vehicle, and in that respect it succeeded spectacularly; her triumph earned her generous applause throughout the evening and a roaring ovation at the final curtain. It will be a thrill to see her finish the cycle in March with Roberto Devereux–the only opera of the three in which she gets to keep her head.

Maria Stuarda runs through February 20 at the Metropolitan Opera. David Pershall sings the role of Cecil on February 11. metopera.org

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