Questions of identity

Do you know who you are?

Today’s performance of the Canadian Opera company production of Roberto Devereux  at the Four Seasons Centre seemed like an investigation of identity.

For one thing, there’s the opera’s plot, which concerns Elizabeth I and intrigues surrounding her.  In Donizetti’s opera we’re not coming at the story from the usual pro-British perspective but instead from the Catholic side.  It makes Mary Stuart a tragic hero (different opera but part of the “trilogy”), and quite possibly portrays Elizabeth more truthfully than what we get from Hollywood.  This is a vain & troubled Elizabeth, which is something unexpectedly edgy when you’re watching a bel canto opera.    So be advised, this is not what you’d expect.

Stephen Lawless’s productions of the trilogy are self-referential, particularly in the last scene of the last opera.  We’ve been in a kind of Globe Theatre replica, in recognition that in her world surely Elizabeth was in some sense a performer with an audience.  I avoided speaking of this aspect the first time I saw the production because I dislike spoilers; yet today, where I deliberately sought a front row seat for a full-frontal experience of the last scene, and knowing what was coming I was still so bowled over I was without a voice for a long time.  The last scene is very much about Elizabeth coming to terms with who she is, both her private sense of herself and the larger spheres such as the political and the historical.  In a good production at a special moment, it doesn’t change anything knowing it’s coming.

Leonardo Capalbo as Roberto Devereux and Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta in the Canadian Opera Company production of Roberto Devereux, 2014. Conductor Corrado Rovaris, director Stephen Lawless, set designer Benoît Dugardyn, costume designer Ingeborg Bernerth and lighting designer Mark McCullough. Photo: Michael Cooper

Leonardo Capalbo (from earlier in the run) as Roberto Devereux and Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta in the Canadian Opera Company production of Roberto Devereux, 2014. Conductor Corrado Rovaris, director Stephen Lawless, set designer Benoît Dugardyn, costume designer Ingeborg Bernerth and lighting designer Mark McCullough. Photo: Michael Cooper

And the identity of our Elizabeth was of course the main reason I had intended to be there in the front row.  This was a chance to see Sondra Radvanovsky again from very close up.  Sometimes good performances don’t look quite as good from up close.  I’d been very moved, for example by Lucy Crowe’s singing in Hercules when seen from afar, as I’d been moved by Alice Coote; up close I found Crowe histrionic and unconvincing (but still nice to hear) whereas Coote, who’d already moved me blew me away even more up close.   Similarly, Radvanovsky was ready for her close-up.  She made me cry three times (at least) in Aida a few years ago, so I wasn’t really surprised.  I didn’t expect to be reduced to a blubbering mess at the end, by the solemn horror with which she–literally– steps into her place in history to end the opera.

Maybe the biggest identity question for me today was the title role.  Ernesto Ramirez, who was the cover for Roberto Devereux, got the nod today.  Knowing that people were coming to see Radvanovsky from all over the world, I can imagine the pressure Ramirez must have felt when he was told he’d be getting a performance.  And so –speaking of theatrical drama– this was the classic drama within a drama.

Tenor Ernesto Ramirez

And Ramirez knows who he is.  While I was grooving on Radvanovsky’s voice, I was wondering how the young tenor would approach the role.  I say this because I recall seeing something rather interesting in the run of Aida, a matter of identity and self-knowledge.  Radvanovsky shared the run with a young soprano named Michelle Capalbo (coincidentally the same name as the tenor who sang earlier in the run). Here’s what I wrote in my blog back in 2010, just after I started.

Radvanovsky enticed the Rhadames of Rosario La Spina to sing louder than he probably intended.  By Act IV, he was a spent-force, after heroically singing himself out earlier, cracking and fading.  On the night I saw him with Capalbo, on the other hand, he stayed within his usual limits, and as a result never cracked.  At times the voice sounded lovely.

In other words, singing opposite one of the most powerful voices in the world, do you know who you are and continue singing as you should, or try to perhaps be something you’re not, press, and sing yourself out (as La Spina clearly did)..?  So I wondered if the same thing might happen to Ramirez, singing opposite such a powerfully-voiced soprano.  But no.  Ramirez knows who he is.  The singing was thoughtful, well-planned.  I have not heard a performance that was so accurately pitched in a very long time. Every single note was exactly on pitch, including two high B’s in his final scene.  I believe there may have been other posssible interpolated notes –that Capalbo gave us on opening night– that Ramirez had the good sense to skip.

Ramirez is not Pavarotti –again speaking of identity– but to my ear, the resemblance is striking.  The line, the lovely precision attack on high notes… but one big difference.  The Great Pavarotti was known to be an instinctive singer who did not read music.  Ramirez? I saw him accompany his wife Michelle on clarinet at a concert I reviewed, as she sang ““non piu di fiori” from La Clemenza di Tito.  Later? He sang “Grenada”, among other things.  I hope this is the big break that shows the world what Ramirez can do.  Who have we heard around here who sounds as good?  Stephen Costello, Ramon Vargas? lovely sounding to be sure, but Ramirez is genuinely in their league, and i swear, a prettier voice.  Yes he does sound like Pavarotti.

Could this be a scene from some operatic equivalent to A Star is Born?  Perhaps it should be.  Ramirez seemed fearless even though the costume didn’t quite fit, even though he’s required to be all over the stage in business that’s above & beyond the singing, for instance as Bottom in a brief snippet from A Midsummernight’s Dream complete with ass’s head.  But I don’t trust the opera world.  I’ve seen too much mis-casting and bizarreness of late –here and abroad– to believe that could happen.  It should happen, the same way the voters of Toronto should wake up and elect someone competent as Mayor.  Sure, I don’t mind if my friends take drugs or drink.  But I wouldn’t want the plane I’m on to be piloted by a drunk.  I’d want someone competent in the driver’s seat.  I want to win my case, not get drunk after losing my lawsuit with the fun chubby guy who’s my lawyer. And yes, I am accustomed to seeing singers who can’t find the right pitch sharing the stage with people who sing perfectly, and nobody in the audience or running the company seeming to give a damn or know the difference.

Sorry, I don’t mean to be negative on a night that was surely a triumph for all involved.  Speaking of identity, what am I doing exactly and who am I?  I’d like to be the one who builds up rather than tears down.   Last night left me feeling sad both for what I saw and for what I felt unable to say.

Tonight? My faith is restored.

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