By Elsa Tranter
Photo credit: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera
San Francisco Opera has scored another winner in this production of one of Gaetano Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy operas (the other two are “Anna Bolena” and “Maria Stuarda”). These three operas, written in the early 19th century about Queen Elizabeth I and the people around her, were popular in their time, even though they were not at all historically accurate. However, the bel canto style of singing, which these (and other operas) represent, had fallen out of favor with American audiences of the 20th century until the great soprano Beverly Sills undertook to sing all three for the New York City Opera in the 1970s. Such was her style, charm and virtuosic singing voice that she started a revival that has continued into the 21st century. (However she has said that playing these three queens took years off her singing life). We can only be grateful that the operas remain in the repertoire and, as in this production, with this cast, bring a splendid night of singing to those lucky enough to see them. This is only San Francisco’s second-ever production of this opera, partly because of the difficulty in finding a soprano who can get through such a challenging role. The last time it played here was in 1979, with Montserrat Caballé in the title role (though she withdrew due to illness after the first performance, leaving her cover, local soprano Ellen Kerrigan, to complete the run).
Roberto Devereux was the nephew of one of Elizabeth's early suitors (and therefore much younger than she; as the opera plays out she is in love with him). He (of course—it’s opera) was in love with one of her ladies in waiting, Sara who, while he was away fighting the Queen’s battles, was forced to marry the Duke of Nottingham, although she didn’t love him. So the lines of conflict and tragedy are laid out and unfolded in beautiful aria after aria.
Singing Queen Elizabeth is the world-famous American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky (who recently sang all three Queen operas at the Met). She has such stage presence that she can go from haughty and regal sovereign to aging (and almost bald) pitiful lovelorn woman and still keep our attention and our sympathy (and sing challenging music seemingly without effort. She has a grand and glorious voice and is a most moving actress.
Her lady-in-waiting, Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, was sung by American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, whose voice soared with power and passion. Her romantic plight was very sad and she sang her heart out in a totally convincing way. The title character, Robert, Earl of Essex, is played by American tenor Russell Thomas. He was stuck in the middle—loved by two women, in love with one of them but loyal to the other (his Queen). He did a reasonable job and sang well, especially in the duets, but his energy and acting weren’t quite up to the high standard that the two women set in this production. Romanian-American baritone and current San Francisco Opera Adler fellow Andrew Manea was excellent in the role of the Duke of Nottingham (husband of the unfortunate Sara). He was a last minute fill-in for Artur Rucinski who was recently injured. Additional participants in the drama included two other Adler fellows: Amitai Pati, a rising New Zealand tenor, as Lord Cecil; and American bass-baritone Christian Pursell, as Sir Walter Raleigh.
English Director Stephen Lawless brought his considerable skill to the task of staging this production, with the help of the late set designer Benoit Dugardyn (a frequent collaborator with Lawless). Costume designer Ingeborg Benerth and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind completed the creative team. The major set was a stunning Globe theater, quite in keeping with the themes of the opera. The staging was generally satisfying, but there seemed an excess of business at times. This seems to be a theme for this season so far—to me if felt like there always had to be a lot of action or the audience would get bored (forgetting that the main reason for being in the opera house is for the music).
The costumes were mostly suitable, although Roberto looked awkwardly out of place in beige and white stripes, black leather pants and a red vest— (at least to me). And the ladies of the court had overly awkward hoop skirted dresses, which called attention to themselves unnecessarily.
The San Francisco Opera Orchestra was conducted with vigor and power by Italian Riccardo Frizza, who has visited in past years. The players responded well to his direction and played to their usual high standard. The opera chorus under the ever-perfect leadership of Ian Robertson, filled the stage when required.
It was a breathtaking evening of bel canto at its best and a rare treat for opera-goers who thrill to this kind of performance.
Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years. She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly. Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.