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BWW Review: Radvanovsky Tears Up the Stage in MARIA STUARDA at the Met

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Celso Albelo as Leicester, Sondra Radvanovsky as Maria
and Elza van den Heever as Elisabetta (l-to-r).
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

With MARIA STUARDA at the Met, we're back for the second installment of Donizetti's so-called Tudor Trilogy, with ANNA BOLENA (Anne Boleyn) already off to the gallows and ROBERTO DEVEREUX (with Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, it was "Elizabeth and Essex") still to come. It's the first time the Met is doing all three operas, with the singular soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna, Maria and Elisabetta (in DEVEREUX, next month). Her Anna was grand--but her Maria was even better.

Radvanovsky sounded a bit under the weather in Act I (there had been an announcement of such at the previous performance), with her voice sometimes having a veiled quality, but it hardly mattered. She was a powerhouse, particularly in the opera's second scene--the apotheosis of anger and jealousy between Mary Queen of Scots (Maria Stuarda) and her cousin Elizabeth I (Elisabetta)--and she gave forth with a string of high notes that consistently hit their mark, riding over the orchestra with ease.

This opera may be more formulaic than the other two in the series (Donizetti notably had a problem with the librettist) but the aforementioned scene is as spectacular a centerpiece as any opera in the canon: the fictitious confrontation between Elizabeth and Mary in the forest outside Fotheringhay Castle. Ostensibly, Elizabeth was there to give Mary a pardon at the prodding of Roberto Dudley (tenor Celso Abelo, in a fine debut), but German playwright Friedrich Schiller, whose play, "Mary Stuart," was the source of the opera, had other fish to fry. The scene (in both play and opera) was his brilliant coup de theatre: Mary, incarcerated for crimes against the state and possibly killing her husband, bites the bullet and pleads for mercy from her cousin. But Elizabeth knows there's only one way to solve a problem like Maria: chop off her head.

While mezzo Joyce DiDonato had a field day as Mary when the production premiered in 2013, I missed the soprano sound that the opera usually calls for. Radvanovsky's pungent, ringing high notes--and a portrayal that started out softly but quickly reached the boiling point in the confrontation--made any other approach sound second best. When she let it rip--giving Elizabeth her comeuppance in no uncertain terms, as she calls her "vile bastard of Boleyn"--her fury even seemed to scare soprano Elza van den Heever as her adversary.

Van den Heever, who also sang opposite DiDonato, had her own party in the opera's other main role, sounding good and acting slightly deranged. This was not exactly "the Virgin Queen" of fable, but a jealous monarch who was used to getting her own way and not above the pettiness brought on by love; in the opera's other fictional development, she wrestles with Mary for the affections of Roberto (though he doesn't seem to be in on the deal). The South African's somewhat lighter voice made a good contrast to Radvanovsky's power, but without ever taking a back seat. I'm not sure what director Sir David McVicar had in mind with the lurching, grotesque figure that this Elizabeth cuts, but it became tiresome, despite van den Heever's best efforts.

John Macfarlane's sets and costumes impressed me more this time around than they had previously--especially after seeing an "Orange is the New Black" approach to the opera at Barcelona's Liceu last year--working well with Jennifer Tipton's sensible lighting design to put across McVicar's production ideas.

This is really a two-star show (even the tenor doesn't have much to do), but there were some fine moments from the supporting players. Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi--who has sung more than 300 performances of 30 roles at the Met!--found an excellent showcase for his rich voice as William Cecil, Elizabeth's Secretary of State, while bass Kwangchul Youn did some solid, fluid singing as Giorgio Talbot, particularly in duet with Mary. In the small role of Anna Kennedy, one of Mary's servants, Anna, Maria Zifchak brought warmth and dignity, especially as she accompanied the Scottish queen to the chopping block.

The Met chorus proved once again how indispensable it is to the institution (and audience!) and Riccardo Frizza led a brisk, knowing performance from the Met orchestra.

The performance proved, once again, that Radvanovsky is becoming an increasingly essential presence at the Met. I expect to lose my head over her turn as Elizabeth in ROBERTO DEVEREUX next month--though it's the only one of the three "Donizetti Queens" where she doesn't lose hers.

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