All eyes and ears were focused on American soprano Sondra Radvanovksy.
Saturday evening during the second blockbuster opera opening of the weekend, Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” takes the name of the the Earl of Essex in Tudor times, but the dramatic center of the opera is Devereux’ queen, Elizabeth I, a role that calls for heart-stopping vocalizing.
Elizabeth is aging and obsessed with Devereux, whom she suspects of transferring his affections to another. Radvanovsky acts the part of the queen perfectly; she walks haltingly with a cane, she has notable tremors, and she displays imperious gestures of desperation to show that she is generally annoyed with everyone in her court.
But this is all about voice, and Radvanovksy, who made a memorable company debut in “Il Trovatore’’ in 2009 and sang the title role in ‘Norma’’ in 2014, masters Donizetti’s demonic coloratura with glittering high notes and absolute tonal precision.
She has just performed Donizetti’s queen trilogy (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Devereux) at the Metropolitan Opera to great acclaim; on Saturday night, her engagement with Elizabeth was a stunning reminder of the glories of bel canto. The audience didn’t seem to care if the performance ever came to an end.
As the Earl of Essex, Russell Thomas is a good vocal match. He is an imposing figure dramatically, and his sturdy, burnished tenor creates a Devereux to touch the heart and command the affections.
In the opening scene, accused of infidelity, he stands his ground, proclaims his innocence and refuses to submit to the queen’s wrath. The power of his delivery nearly equals Radvanovksy’s, and he is able to show the queen his loyalty, which does not translate to the kind of devotion she seeks.
San Francisco Opera has cast an excellent Duchess of Nottingham in American mezzo Jamie Barton (Barton sang Adalgisa in the 2014 “Norma’’ and appeared here in the summer “Ring” cycle). Her large, plush voice perfectly defines Sara, the woman whom Devereux loves to the end.
The Duke of Nottingham, Sara’s husband and Devereux’s close friend, is sung by Adler Fellow Andrew Manea, who took over the role after a cancellation, and after initial pitch problems, turned in a handsome performance. It is Nottingham who discovers the bond between his wife and Devereux and helps to bring about Devereux’s transfer to the Tower. Adler Fellow Amitai Pati was an imposing Lord Cecil.
Benoȋt Dugardyn’s set is a grand wood-paneled hall modeled on Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The three tiers of balconies allow the courtiers space to watch and react to what is happening onstage. During the overture, famous figures, including Shakespeare, appear onstage, an interesting touch, and Henry the VIII, Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth appear in glass cases that are shuffled to demonstrate their places in history: Henry at the forefront, Boleyn to the side, Henry out of the light, Elizabeth to the front.
Ingeborg Bernerth’s Tudor-period costumes are suitably lavish, and Stephen Lawless’ staging is detailed and rather formal, never interfering with the music. Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza drew vibrant playing from the opera orchestra, and Ian Robertson’s chorus performed at their usual best.
San Francisco Opera has presented the opera only once before, in 1979, with Montserrat Caballé and Ellen Kerrigan in the role of the queen.
This production comes from the Canadian Opera Company.
The audience voiced its appreciation of this spectacular, nearly three-hour performance with a long and loud ovation. “Roberto Devereux’’ has five more performances at the War Memorial Opera House through Sept. 27.
Top photo: Marco Berti singing the role of Canio in Pagliacci. (Cory Weaver/S.F. Opera)