The opera is called Roberto Devereux but don’t let that throw you. The reason we’re there, the reason to see the Canadian Opera Company production of that aforementioned opera is for another character, namely Elisabetta, aka Queen Elizabeth.
It’s a showcase for soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. The best operatic roles demand singing and acting. I recall being moved by Radvanovsky’s portrayal of Aida, so I was not totally surprised that she could act, even if I had no idea how far Stephen Lawless’s self-referential production would push his leading lady, and how far she’d answer his call.
As in his other two productions of the Elizabethan cycle of Donizetti operas, Lawless’s stage suggests the Elizabethan theatre. It makes perfect sense if we think of how meta-theatrical the royal life was and is, what with the rituals and pomp that are already part of the institution of monarchy. The opening sequence is particularly delightful in setting this up for us, aided by a few slightly obvious surtitles in case we miss the point. But it’s a spectacular effect especially once Lawless gets to his last scene, a series of opportunities that Radvanovsky doesn’t waste.
While the program reminds us that composer Donizetti wrote in a style known as “bel canto”, this production is not an ideal example thereof. It’s funny, one sometimes hears of director’s theatre where the radical production makes you cover your eyes, while your ears bask in the glories of the singing & orchestral playing. This production is actually the reverse, a visual feast. I’m accustomed to thinking of bel canto operas as virtuoso vehicles, a mere pretense for a series of arias & ensembles enabling singers to show off. Be prepared for something completely different –something better–from Lawless, designer Benoit Dugardyn and his cast, particularly Radvanovsky as Elizabeth I. Yes there’s the usual oom-pah compositional style, the plethora of coloratura, especially for the soprano. But it’s all in the service of a compelling if melodramatic story that we’ve seen before from Hollywood. I think this version is as illuminating as anything I’ve seen onscreen, and Radvanovsky gives Cate Blanchett & Bette Davis a run for their money. If the last scene doesn’t blow you away make sure you check for a pulse.
But except for the two principals, it’s the drama rather than the music that makes the magic. Only Radvanovsky & tenor Leonardo Capalbo in the title role sounded genuinely Italianate, even though everyone onstage contributed to the compelling stage illusion. I hold Conductor Corrado Rovaris responsible, letting the orchestra blast as though this were Verdi rather than Donizetti, thereby pushing some singers out of their comfort zone, struggling to be heard. As this is opening night perhaps that can be adjusted in future performances. But the lack of subtlety doesn’t spoil the effect, really, because we’re in a realm of storytelling, and the story being told is eloquent indeed.
I am looking forward to seeing this again from up close in my subscription seats, especially Radvanovsky’s vulnerability in the last scene. We knew she can sing but now I know that she can act.
Prepare to be blown away.