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BWW Interview: Tenor Matthew Polenzani - Boy Toy of the Tudor Queens

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta and tenor
Matthew Polenzani in the title role of ROBERTO DEVEREUX.
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Tenor Matthew Polenzani--he of the refined singing, elegant deportment and serious nature--is having a great season at the Met, with major roles in a pair of new productions. First, he was Nadir, whose love for the priestess Leila (Diana Damrau) tempts her to give up her vows in Bizet's LES PECHEURS DE PERLES (THE PEARL FISHERS). Now he's working his mojo on no less than Elisabetta (Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen of England), in the new production of Donizetti's ROBERTO DEVEREUX at the Met, premiering March 24. This is the third installment of the so-called Tudor Trilogy being performed this season by soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Elizabeth I in this opera, plus Ann Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots.

"He was Elisabetta's boy toy--she liked fooling around with him but wasn't about to make him king," says the tenor. She probably made the right decision, he thinks: "Frankly, I don't think Devereux was that swift a guy. He wasn't an idiot--but he certainly lacked some common sense." You'd never say that about Polenzani himself. At 47, he's hardly a boy toy, though he looks dashing these days in his homegrown goatee. More than that: The singer, who was born near Chicago and once planned to be a music teacher, has a head on his shoulders about his career and life in general.

"Chivalrous, open-handed, cocksure and impulsive"

According to the British historian AN Wilson, who wrote a recent book on Elizabethan England, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, arrived at Elizabeth I's court in his 20s, "every inch the gallant young aristocrat - chivalrous, open-handed, cocksure and impulsive." Wilson says that Elizabeth, who was old enough to be his grandmother, "warmed to his charm and they danced and played cards together through the night." (Talk about euphemisms!)

In 1939, when Hollywood took on the tale of the aging Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, who was half her age, it became "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex," starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, the proverbial swashbuckler (who had insisted on having his character added to the title of what was supposed to be "Elizabeth the Queen," after a Broadway hit by Maxwell Anderson).

Historical fiction--not a documentary

Polenzani has never seen the movie--or any production of the opera, for that matter. So how does he approach an historical role like this? (This is not his first turn at the Elizabethan rodeo: In 2012, he was Leicester, the historical stepfather of Devereux, in MARIA STUARDA at the Met, the tale of a totally fictitious showdown between Mary Queen of Scots and, you guessed it, Elizabeth I, which cast him as part of a, again, fictitious love triangle between the two queens.)

"I did read a lot about Devereux and watched the HBO miniseries with Helen Mirren as the queen (Hugh Dancy was Devereux), to see what people were like or, at least, a vision of what they were like," says Polenzani. "Certainly, we have to remember that this is historical fiction. It's accurate...up to a point, but it's not a documentary: It's a story. We play with what we've been given."

Putting the score's emotion into his body

"As for the music, I didn't look closely at it until after a couple of performances of PEARL FISHERS, which was a new role and opened at the Met on New Year's Eve," he says. "Before that, I was busy preparing for doing the title role in WERTHER, which I hadn't done in three years and was singing in Munich (Bayerische Staatsoper) and at the Vienna Staatsoper. That's a tough score musically and it that took a little while to get back."

Once he finally got into DEVEREUX, however, learning the music wasn't a problem.

"There were about 10 days between the last performance of PEARL FISHERS and the first rehearsal of DEVEREUX. In that short time, I worked hard on the part, to make sure it was vocally in a place I was feeling comfortable, because I wanted to be able to sing during rehearsals," he recalls. "I listened to the piece, to try to understand what was going on in the orchestra, for example--I do this for every opera--and started coaching sessions to help me learn the music and sing it in a musical way, plus seeing my teacher to take care of my voice. I wanted to put the emotion into my body before we got onto the stage."

He considers himself a quick study--a topic that's certainly on the minds of NY operagoers, since Roberto Alagna jumped in on two weeks' notice to take over the lead in the Met's new MANON LESCAUT for the indisposed Jonas Kaufmann. Could Polenzani jump in on such short notice? "Probably. I learned Leicester like that in MARIA STUARDA. Yes, I had a little more time--I found out about Leicester two months before the production debut at the Met. But I was singing my first Werther and couldn't afford to spend a single brain cell on Leicester until the second or third performance of WERTHER. (He debuted his Werther at the Chicago Lyric Opera the second week of November 2012 and MARIA STUARDA premiered on New Year's Eve.)

You never forget how to learn

"It's not hard to learn a major role quickly, if you can get a good recording to work from"--he's confident enough not to worry about picking up other singers' tics or technique--"and if you get to work with someone like John Fisher, head of the music staff at the Met (Director of Music Administration).

"I think once you use the section of the brain that's used to learning music--and if you're using it regularly--you never forget how to learn," he believes. "Of course, you can get less good at learning as you grow older, but I'm not there yet. I have a lot of new pieces this year-PEARL FISHERS was new, this is new, and I'm getting ready to do my first LA BOHEME this summer at the Liceu in Barcelona. In the fall, I'm doing another Donizetti, LA FAVORITE, in French in Munich with Mariusz (Kwiecien) and Elina (Garanca)."

The essential David McVicar

He adds quickly that Director (Sir) David McVicar was essential in mapping out the character of Devereux. "David was particularly great at helping us enter into the minds of these people. He is that way in every opera he does, but in these historically based pieces, he has a real, deep understanding at what drove and motivated these people: Elizabeth, Devereux, Sara, Nottingham in this opera, as well as Stuarda and Leicester. David gave us a strong understanding of what was behind the words that the librettist gave us.

"He's special at what he does," Polenzani explains. "There are lots of directors who can make pretty pictures, who can show things that look good to the eye (NB: McVicar designed the production as well as directing it). It takes a real artist, like David, to help you enter into the character and to understand what motivates the character--to help you get beyond the literal translation," he continues.

He acknowledges that McVicar's skills make him a rare bird, especially at a time when there's a proliferation of directors working in opera houses who don't know opera or like opera but simply want to "bring a new take" on it. "My opinion has always been: 'Set it wherever you want to set it'--I love the Met's Las Vegas RIGOLETTO, for instance--but if we can't put across what the libretto says, then we've got a problem. If we have to give the public two pages of notes so they can understand what we're doing, then we've made a mistake.

"We're really pretty lucky in this country, because we tend to do things a little more traditionally. Yes, it can be a little boring, too." he admits, "but if you've got good artists, as long as you can create characters, you can surmount the most boring production."

Complex relationships

"For DEVEREUX, I knew that I would depend on David; in fact, he fed me many things over the rehearsal period--little ideas that I might not have considered, especially as an American who doesn't have a strong grasp of royalty."

"One of the things I've found interesting about the character, for instance, is that he had aspirations to the throne, though they had really stopped by the time of the opera. When he entered into the relationship with Elizabeth, I'm sure he hoped that he would marry her, then take over one day--after all, she was more than 30 years his senior--and be the king."

But, he says, it's not simply the personal relationship with Elizabeth--and her jealousy about his secret love with Sara (mezzo Garanca), Duchess of Nottingham, wife of a royal adviser and his best friend (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) --but her being of two minds about Devereux as the guy who has, ahem, "royally screwed up," as Polenzani puts it.

He continues, "It's the central problem for Elizabeth because Devereux has returned from Ireland, where she sent him to put down an uprising and execute the rebel leader; instead, after a thorough routing, he signed a peace treaty. This made no one in England happy--particularly Lord Cecil, Devereux's major rival in the court, who demands that the queen sign Devereux's death warrant, though she is unconvinced of his disloyalty. Elizabeth is prepared to pardon him--he's someone she doesn't want to see die, who she's fond of, and, in some little way, in love with--just as long as he still loves her and if he reveals his lover. He refuses, saying there is no one else."

(Spoiler alert: Devereux dies at the end, before Elizabeth can pardon him.)

A big pleasure to come to rehearsal

For the tenor, one of the great things about this production has been that it "has been a big pleasure to come to rehearsal every day and work with this great cast, this director." "As singers, we've all been in the situation where we're in a revival and there's not a big drive toward creating deep art. It's a paycheck job. This DEVEREUX in particular has felt very much like we are doing something very cool." (Another "cool" thing about the production, says Polenzani: "This opera will be the first time I'm singing C-sharps in public. Yes, I'm 47 and my voice is still changing! Oddly, It's getting lower and higher.")

In general, he's very opinionated about which roles he takes. For example, he wasn't interested in making it a "Tudor Trilogy" trifecta of tenor roles to go along with the Three Queens. For him, passing on Percy, the tenor role in ANNA BOLENA, was a no-brainer, while Leicester in MARIA STUARDA, though a success for him, was "no day at the beach." (He stepped into the production replacing an "indisposed" Italian colleague.) "A good look at Percy's music told me that I wasn't interested because it didn't fit me very well, though at first glance I thought it fit me better than Leicester. Leicester, frankly, was a brute for me--hard in every sense of the word," he recalls.

"Even though Leicester is a short part, I would finish the show tired: Ungrateful tessitura (i.e., consistently high), and Leicester's an ungrateful character to portray. Yes, the opera has two really great duets for him, but there's a ho-hum aria and then a trio--not a lot there. I could sing it but wasn't happy singing it," he recalls. "Let's put it this way: I could sing the title role in LES CONTES D'HOFFMAN twice in a day and be less tired than Leicester made me."

The problem with LA BOHEME

A bread-and-butter role for tenors that Polenzani has put off for a surprisingly long time is Rodolfo in LA BOHEME, which he'll do this June in Barcelona. While he gave a variety of reasons for avoiding Rodolfo for so long--mostly relating to preferring other operas that suit his voice--he also admits that, earlier in his career, he viewed doing the role as a kind of "Catch 22."

"I always thought that when you start down the BOHEME road, if you have a success at it, it's tough to get off of it. Every company does it--it wasn't that long ago that no company would do a season without their ABCs, AIDA, BOHEME, CARMEN, because if you put those three on you'll sell enough tickets to be a going concern the next year. That's probably still true." Well established these days, his performances aren't "about the paycheck" but feeling fulfilled as a singer. "If I'm going to be away from my family, my home, then I want to be doing something interesting."

"My repertory choices have always been very broad based and I doubt that I've given 100 performances of any opera in my life," he explains. "That's rare for established singers. I have friends--younger than me-- who have already sung 150 or 175 performances of various parts. I say to them: 'Don't you have other things you want to do?'" At the top of his list of preferred roles is Don Ottavio in DON GIOVANNI, which he has done nearly 100 times; he particularly enjoys singing "Dalla sua pace."

Exercising vocal muscles

"I like to sing a lot of different things. I think it's good for my voice, good to exercise that muscle in slightly different ways," he avers. "Nemorino (in L'ELISIR D'AMORE) is maybe a third higher than Don Ottavio. Ferrando in COSI FAN TUTTE --that's high, especially if you're doing 'Ah! lo veggio', his third aria, which they like to do at the Met but don't do very often elsewhere. As I said, Leicester's tessitura is brutally high but Devereux, by the same composer, is somehow more approachable. I'm singing more high notes in this opera than is typical for me but, somehow, it doesn't seem so high because of the way it's put together." He also keeps his voice in shape with song recitals--Schubert, Strauss, Britten and Poulenc to name a few--which he also enjoys doing and takes on the road every other year or so.

What's next on his dance card? At the Met, it's out with Donizetti and in with Mozart, with a couple of roles he loves: He'll be Don Ottavio and, on the more dramatic side, the title role in the opera seria IDOMENEO, about the problems besetting a king of Crete. Polenzani will also take on the short but juicy role of The Italian Singer in the new production of DER ROSENKAVALIER,with Renee Fleming. Further down the road? "I'm thinking about taking on more middle-weight Verdi, like Rodolfo in LUISA MILLER, Macduff in MACBETH and Gustavo in BALLO IN MASCHERA, at some point. But not IL TROVATORE, not OTELLO," he says, laughing.

The road to IL TROVATORE?

"I don't say I won't get to those pieces; it's entirely possible. As they say, never say never--but I don't have any aspiration to go there," he says. "I've been hearing lately that I should take on TROVATORE--and part of me thinks: Are you listening to me, my voice? And then another part says, maybe they're hearing something in my voice that's suggestive of a road I should take."

"Yes, I work hard at my career--I'm careful about what I sing, the way I sing, keeping my voice in shape. I do everything I can because I want to sing every show as if it's my last." He explains that last point further, "There are two ways to take that: One, blow it out and do whatever you want to your voice because it's coming to an end anyway. Or, the other possibility, is that the end could be around the corner, so why not do it as carefully and as perfectly as you can. And that's the approach I take."

But his life as a singer, learning new roles, is not Polenzani's whole life. "I've developed a really strong structure--not just an operatic base but a life base. When I do master classes and such, I like to tell kids, 'Go out and live a life--don't let this be everything you are.' So many young singers want to be at the top very quickly--singing in Milan, Vienna, London, Paris--at 25 or 28. That's tough because it doesn't leave you time for much else."

He says, frankly. "I have a very strong connection to my family, identification as a dad (of three sons), a husband (of nearly 20 years), a friend, a brother, a son, and those things are more important to me than my career. In fact, they inform my singing," he concludes. "Life is way bigger than opera, as great as this art form is. When my operatic career is over-- and I want to do that when I've had 'enough' and not because my voice starts to go--I'll still have those other things."

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The April 16 matinee performance of ROBERTO DEVEREUX will be transmitted Live in HD around the world at 12:55 p.m. ET hosted by Deborah Voigt. The transmission will be seen in more than 2,000 movie theaters in 70 countries. It will also be broadcast over the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network.

The April 11 and 16 performances will be broadcast live on Metropolitan Opera Radio on SIRIUS XM Channel 74. The March 24 and April 4 performances will also be streamed on the Met's web site, www.metopera.org.


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