Gran Teatre del Liceu 2020-2021 Review: The Tudor Queens
Sondra Radvanovsky Amazes in Donizetti’s Three Final ScenesBy Mauricio Villa
(Credit: PIG Studio)
The American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky triumphed at the Gran Teatre del Liceu with an unprecedented concert performing the three final scenes of Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy: “Anna Bolena,” “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux.” Very few sopranos have dared to sing these three scenes in the same concert due to their vocal and dramatic challenges. It’s a long concert for a single soloist, and with no intervals, the soprano is forced to sing practically non-stop for almost an hour. These three dramatic roles constantly test the voice as they use the full range in the long recitatives, long legato arias, and the explosive cabalettas with devilish coloratura.
Just as Maria Callas was nicknamed ‘La Divina,’ Joan Sutherland ‘La stupenda’ and Monserrat Caballe ‘La superba,’ Sondra Radvanovsky has been christened by her fans as ‘The Queen,’ and she really is. Her voice is one of those miracles of nature without comparison. Trained as a mezzo-soprano, her lower and middle register is astounding, while she has the ability to produce beautiful, perfect pianissimi even in the highest notes, and wonderfully resonant vibrant extreme high notes. And on this evening she showed her expertise in this repertoire.
The evening began with the overture to “Anna Bolena” with Riccardo Frizza conducting incisively. There was great contrast between the slow sections, which were given dramatic emphasis, and the fast sections which were filled with energy and impeccable articulation. It created a perfect blend and moved the music forward to its heroic conclusion. Once the overture concluded, Frizza moved straight into the final scene, which begins with a lamenting female chorus that foreshadows the tragic scene. Following the harrowing musical moment is Anna’s recitative “Piangete voi,” which completely exposes the soprano. As she sings the orchestra stops—to reinforce the idea of madness. The soprano sings in what seems to be incoherent sentences and has a high C in the fifth line “infiorato,” which Radvanovsky attacked bravely and in full voice. But as she sang this note with no orchestration underneath, the sound emerged thunderously from the stage and rang in one’s ears. Radvanovsky’s voice grew in volume from low to high. After a few isolated sad sentences, Anna becomes aggressive in “Chi parlò de Percy” and Radvanovsky became terrifyingly menacing, using her strong dark middle sound. In a small cadenza that concluded the recitative, Radvanovsky added an extra high C lowering two octaves to a low sonorous C in her chest voice. She moaned, frightened and desperate, during the aria’s introduction.
She began the aria “Ah dolde guidarmi” in a soaring mezza voce, lightening the sound and transforming her dry dark natural sound into a crystal-quality timbre, going even further by singing the roulades of “sospiri ancor” in a floating pianissimo. She continued to use this magical effect of combining mezza voce with the forte throughout the aria. This was especially noticeable during her chromatic roulades ascending to high A, making a crescendo to forte while holding the note. This was a memorable moment as it showed the potency and strength of her voice. At the end of the final cadenza, she went straight into a forte high B flat and kept this strong sound for the high C. She then decrescendoed to a pianissimo as she descended into the ending of the aria.
The scene progresses into a long section where the characters of Percy, Seymor, Rochefort and the male chorus join to sing spare sentences or accompany Anna during the lamenting arioso “Cielo, a’miei lunghi.” In her last lines before the final cabaletta, Radvanocsky interpolated a strong high B flat before descending two octaves to a low B flat. Here she used her full chest voice on the words “Cessate” and created a terrifying effect. Her subsequent high C on “e versato” was explosive and commanding.
The cabaletta “Coppia iniquia” is probably is one of the most difficult in the repertoire. It goes from the lowest notes of the soprano to high coloratura and uses trills in chromatic ascension. Additionally, the soprano must sing over a full orchestra following 20 minutes of non-stop singing. All these elements are used to express the character’s desperation and fury. Radvanovsky was outstanding in this musical moment. Even when she covered the low notes rather than using the full chest resonance, the spinto quality of her voice did true justice to the fury, anger, and despair. Her voice was also fresh and agile-enough for the scales and the several high B flats and Cs. During the repetition, Radvanovsky interpolated subtle variations, always in style and keeping the melody recognizable. She also gave the piece more tension and introduced a surprisingly effective high D flat in “m’acquisti clemenza.” She concluded with a long-sustained trill on a B flat and resolved down as Donizetti wrote. Radvanovsky gave everything she had in the cabaletta, which was both vocally and dramatically outstanding.
This portion of the concert began with the overture to “Maria Stuarda.” This overture doesn’t belong to Donizetti’s first version but to Maria Malibràn’s version for the Teatro alla Scala in 1835. This time Frizza focused on the military, martial atmosphere of the piece, maintaining regular tempi.
It was followed by the final scene which opens with an ominous prelude, an elegiac-laden “Inno della morte” for a chorus of Maria’s friends. This last scene completely breaks from the fixed structure of recitative-aria-cabaletta, alternating melodic recitatives with several ariosos and andante movements. The chorus is also always present during the entire scene and Maria’s tessitura is quite central, rarely going above the stave on the recitative and preghiera. For some sopranos, it is actually the most difficult role of the three.
During this section of the concert, Radvanovsky sang mostly in mezza voce, holding the potency of her voice. During the preghiera, Donizetti demands the soprano to hold a high G for nine long bars and gradually ascend to a B flat, all in a single breath. Radvanovsky held the G of the first bars in a soaring pianissimo. You could hear this small, sparkling sound over the entire chorus, making a crescendo to mezza voce and going to forte when reaching the high B flat. She ended the phrase with a gorgeous dimuniendo. As she sang the demanding phrase, Radvanovsky transmitted a sense of peace and spiritualism. She also introduced slight variations during the last repetition, singing the last B flat effortlessly.
During the aria “Di un cor che muore,” Maria’s lines are written in the middle voice and within the stave until the end where the soprano must sing two high B flats. Here Radvanovsky once again showed her amazing ability to sing high notes pianissimo before eventually singing with her full chest voice on a low B flat.
The final piece “Ah! se un giorno di queste ritorte” is a slow and intense maestoso that brings a mix of emotions to Maria. While there is a lamenting quality to the opening lines, the piece also demonstrates her power and resignation as the tempo speeds up. Radvanovsky again added a few of her own variations, sometimes singing a line one octave higher, introducing high As and B naturals to the score. All these variations emphasized the very mixed emotions of her character. At the end of the piece, Radvanovsky interpolated a high D that resonated throughout the auditorium and which resonated as a cry of desperation.
Frizza conducted the overture to “Roberto Devereux,” giving strength to the several infectious melodies that this piece presents. His conducting with brisk and effective and it ended with a great crescendo and accelerando that created a wonderful effect.
This was the only scene of the concert where the soprano was not preceded by a chorus, so our heroine Elisabetta goes straight into a dramatic recitative. As soon as Radvanovsky began “Oh Sara in questi orribili” you could hear the amazing characterization of the soprano as brought all the dramatic weight to it. There was a sense of lament and anger and that was conveyed through her full, dark voice. Unlike the previous two queens, this is no longer a young woman facing her imminent death but an old fatigued queen consumed by sorrow, doubts and extreme, delirious anger. Radvanovsky delivered another of her exquisite pianissimi on her first high A in “Oh, Sara” but continued with a full dark voice, including the high B natural in “Oh troce idea funesta,” which she sang with tremendous power.
The scene crescendoed in all aspects as she threw a cane Elisabetta uses to help her limp and produced an open animal quality of sound showing despair, fury, and madness. The effect was terrifying.
That recitative brought the soprano into “Vivi, Ingrate,” which was sung sublimely. Radvanovsky characterized her interpretation through mental instability and sorrow, paying attention to every dynamic of the score. She once again delivered a big jump from a strong high A to a full chest sonorous low D and repeated the effect on her final cadenza from the high B flat to low B flat. The general tessitura of the aria is high between high G and A, with several Bs. But Radvanovsky was up to the task and made use of every single vocal resource, not only to sing bel canto but to recreate her character. This was most apparent in the recitative between the aria and the final cabaletta. Here one could see her weakening posture, her shaking hands, and a limp. Her voice also soared to terrifying heights with cries of horror at hearing of Devereux’s death. That swiftly changed in the lines “Tu perversa,” which she sang with grit and vigor.
The final cabaletta “Quel sangue versato al cielo” was the expression of the horror and despair that Elisabetta suffers at the end of the work. Radvanovsky combined all her vocal powers which she had presented during the night. She sang with a clear mezza voce, forte dynamics, pianissimi, resonant chest notes, and long legato phrases. Somehow Elisabetta, more than the previous two queens, was more characterized, both vocally and dramatically. She sang both sections of the cabaletta without variations and instead focused on the text and deepening Elisabetta’s suffering. At the end of the piece, she interpolated a strong high D.
It would be easy to say that “Roberto Devereux” was the best part of the program, but that would be far from the truth. All three queens were interpreted in true bel canto style, and immaculate technique. But “Devereux” resonated the most and it was clear at the end of the evening.
The scenes were interpreted as semi-staged versions of themselves with costumes and lighting. They were presented in chronological story order but the concept, stage directing, costumes, and lighting were quite deficient and even, at times, annoying. It seemed better to just simply do a concert version, as the artistry of Radvanovsky alone can transport you to the situations that take place during the scenes.
The stage directing of Rafael Villalobos was clumsy and full of clichés. Radvanovsky made the same entrance in all the scenes. She came from the back of the stage all while the chorus made a path for her. Villalobos’ idea to make the chorus move in slow motion during the beginning of “Anna Bolena” also looked ridiculous and lacked the dramatic effect the music needs. It seemed like Villalobos intended to do more and be completely original, yet the result was one of a stage director unable to cover all his ideas in the time available.
The beautiful costumes designed by Rubin Singer were modern concept dresses based on period costumes. The problem with this concept is that Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda are both in prison during these final scenes and they are about to be sent to death. As a result, it felt confusing why they are wearing splendid gowns with magnificent fabrics and sparkling jewels. These costumes would perfectly suit a concert version, but in a semi-staged performance, the result is distracting. I am not suggesting that Radvanovsky should have worn period costumes, but the modern designs should have matched the dramatic scenes rather than presenting the singer like a fashion model.
But for all the defects in the production, this was Radvanovsky’s evening and she was magnificent.