Operatic Royalty
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Operatic Royalty

SONDRA RADVANOVSKY, who sings Elisabetta I in this month’s Met premiere of Roberto Devereux, has emerged as one of opera’s greatest singing actresses.
by Jennifer Melick. 

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© Andrew Eccles/August
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© Andrew Eccles/August
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As Norma at the Met, 2013, with Aleksandrs Antonenko (Pollione)
© Johan Elbers

“I REALLY LOVE CHALLENGES,” says Sondra Radvanovsky in what might be taken as a massive understatement.

IT’S FALL, and she’s just finished the first half of the Metropolitan Opera’s split run of Anna Bolena, Donizetti’s fiendishly taxing bel canto opera about the doomed second wife of Henry VIII. The degree of difficulty in that opera, she says matter-of-factly, is “unbelievable. She has to do everything with her voice—ride above the orchestra at points and pare down the voice to this little filigree, do high and soft singing, and low singing, and loud singing. When I was training and working with my coach on it, you have to really work on all the extended parts of the voice. Not a lot of roles really do that to singers. But this is one of them. Fortunately or unfortunately, I specialize in a lot of these roles—Norma, [Leonora in] Trovatore—that just demand everything of you vocally.” She recalls that when she sang Norma in San Francisco in 2014, “Technically, each night, I’d push to see—can I sing that high note even softer? Or, oh, can I hold that note even longer? And this is an opera where you can do that. It’s all about the technique. And it is a marathon opera. Just like Anna Bolena, she is onstage all night.”

Radvanovsky’s Met trifecta—the title roles in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena (Sept./Oct. 2015) and Maria Stuarda (Jan./Feb.) and Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux (a new production opening this month)—has been the talk of the opera season. Devereux, conducted by Maurizio Benini, costars Matthew Polenzani, Elı-na Garancˇa and Mariusz Kwiecien. The hat trick is a head-spinning feat; for a soprano to pull it off, everything has to be perfect—coloratura runs, one high note after another, energy enough for hours and hours of stage time, and the confidence and dramatic conviction to bring to life three of the most famous women in history. Not many sopranos are up to the challenge; the last time it was accomplished in New York in one season was in the 1970s, by Beverly Sills. Radvanovsky says Sills’s voice “was completely different from mine. I think my voice is more in the vein of Maria Callas, a more substantial dramatic voice, Beverly Sills being more of a coloratura. Callas, like myself, was more of a spinto, full lyric soprano.” 

The Met’s three queens cycle originally was planned for Anna Netrebko, Radvanovsky says, but in the end, Netrebko chose to sing only Anna Bolena. It was roughly six years ago that Radvanovksy was approached about doing all three. She was taken out to lunch by former Met assistant general manager Sarah Billinghurst, who, as Radvanovsky recalls, told her the Met had “‘an interesting project that we want to offer you.’ I said, ‘Okay, sure,’ thinking it was going to be the Trittico of Puccini, all three of them, or something like that. And she said, ‘We want you to do the three Donizetti queens.’ And I said, ‘Yeah—I don’t know two of them.’” After conferring with her coach, Anthony Manoli, and then-manager Alec Treuhaft (she is now with Jonathan Letts), Radvanovsky made up her mind to do Bolena and Devereux but took longer to decide on which role to do in Stuarda. “Technically, Maria Stuarda is not a Tudor queen, but I love the music of Stuarda better than the Elizabeth music,” she explains. Eventually, she agreed, but, she says, “We had to go into the task of finding places to do these operas first, before doing all three of them at the Met. I wanted to go and try them out and get my feet a little bit wet doing them.”

ONE OF THE GREAT joys of listening to Radvanovsky sing this music is the sense that she still has a lot of voice left at the end. As Anna Bolena in New York this past fall, Radvanovsky’s coloratura was spectacularly precise and sculpted with care and forethought; she flung out high notes with abandon. From moment to moment, Radvanovsky’s timbre could be warm or cool or fiery, or it could slice through the orchestration like a knife. Her chest voice at times was ferocious, as in the two-octave downward leap leading into “Coppia iniqua” during the mad scene. The combination of the hint of metal in her sound and her rapid vibrato make for an uncanny degree of accuracy: you not only hear the notes; you can almost see their outline on the page. And you can understand every word. The voice’s size and weight, added to the soprano’s height and bearing, make her totally believable as an ambitious queen at the precipice of her downfall. All of this adds up to an electrifying night in the theater: the audience seemed almost stunned at times. Jamie Barton, who sang Giovanna to Radvanovsky’s Anna, says of their big duet together, “We are absolutely trading off screaming at each other at a certain point. We’ve both got kind of larger voices, and neither one of us has to hold back. Sondra is also kind of a glorious freak of nature! People get moved by this kind of incredible talent, and it’s not just ‘talent’—it’s something unique. This is a woman who knows her voice, knows how to use her voice, knows what she can do well and what she needs to work on. Then you add also having that particular voice, and it’s just unbelievable.”

That particular voice has expanded from solidly Verdi-and-Puccini territory to include bel canto repertoire that most listeners would not have expected ten years ago. But, says David McVicar, director of all three Donizetti operas at the Met this season, “She’s not one of the girls that want to sing this kind of rep because it’s for songbirds. Callas was attracted to this repertoire because she found it needed dramatic illumination. That’s what Sondra’s into, and that’s what makes all the difference.” In McVicar’s view, among sopranos Radvanovsky is “the finest singing actress America has right now.” She acknowledges that she always gravitated to Callas. “She was never afraid to make an ugly noise when it was needed. Yes, it is bel canto—beautiful singing—but Callas thought about every note, every word. The attention to detail! I always have really admired Callas, because she did everything 150 percent. And that’s what I really truly aim for.” 

Indeed, when you hear Radvanovsky live, at full throttle, you want to soak up that glorious sound, and you don’t want it to stop. Over the years, however, her voice has not been to everyone’s liking. Typical complaints have been that Radvanovsky sometimes slides into notes, a bit in the manner of Leontyne Price; that her timbre is strident and needs more Tebaldi-esque warmth; that her coloratura can be rough or approximate, her acting more showy than organic. Such complaints have not stopped altogether, but they have receded as this singer has reached a new technical level that has opened her up dramatically as well. In a sense, Radvanovsky has to be better than other singers, because with that gleaming, precise timbre there’s nowhere to hide: any smudges are obvious. She had surgery in 2003 to remove a vocal-cord polyp she had had since childhood. Afterward, she says, “It really changed my voice, in that I had all this high and soft singing then, too, and a whole new palette of colors and technique that I could never do before—this bump on my vocal cords was always getting in the way. My coach said, ‘I think [bel canto] is going to be the route you are going to go.’ We started with Lucrezia Borgia, my very first bel canto opera, and I loved it! And I said, ‘Okay, what next?’”

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As Donizetti’s Elisabetta at Canadian Opera Company, 2014, with Allison McHardy (Sara, Duchess of Nottingham)
© Michael Cooper

A YEAR AGO, Radvanovsky sang Devereux’s Elisabetta for the first time, at Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company. “I didn’t think I was going to like Elizabeth as much as I did,” she says, “because it is such an extreme musical experience—so dramatic-coloratura. But in some ways, it might fit me the best of the three, vocally and temperamentally. The poor girl’s always angry. Yelling at everybody all night, yelling at the tenor, yelling at the mezzo—yelling at everybody, ‘Leave me alone! I hate you, I hate the world!’ And to see a woman at the extreme, at the very end of her life, for me, acting-wise and vocally, it’s the most challenging.”

The key to performing these operas, in Radvanovsky’s view, is learning how to pace yourself. The first time she sang Anna Bolena, in 2012, at Washington National Opera, she says, “One night I came to the end of it, and I thought, ‘Oh dear God, if I have to sing one more note, I really think I’m going to be done!’ It’s just really learning the arc of it, and where you have to think more about conserving a little bit. I am one that really likes to give 150 percent, not just vocally but also acting. This is my third production that I’ve done, and I really felt like in New York I was able to do that 150 percent the whole night and not run out of steam.”

Customizing the ornamentation in these florid operas is one way Radvanovsky keeps her voice from tiring out. In “Giudici? Ad Anna?” at the end of Act I of Anna Bolena, when Henry has just summoned judges for a court trial, signaling her doom, she says, “I throw in a lot of high notes. She’s hysterical at that moment, and that’s why it just helps to showcase the emotions as well. If one were to sing Anna Bolena exactly as written in the score, it is quite a low role, of the three [Tudor queens] the lowest. And my voice likes to sit a little higher, so that’s why [my coach and I] took a lot of these optional notes up instead of down,” she says.

She has other preparation tactics: this past summer, she says, her husband, Duncan Lear, “set up this really beautiful gym in our basement, and we took two months to mentally, physically and musically prepare for these three queens.” Every day, in addition to singing, she worked out—“more cardio than weight-lifting, just to work on the stamina and the lung capacity. 

“Hype is the wrong word,” she says, “but there is definitely a lot of buzz around the three queens, the first person to do it at the Met, and blah blah. I really wanted to be ready to embrace all of this when it happened, be in the moment. Because for me it’s also something really new and exciting and fun to do all these three characters.”

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David McVicar’s staging of Anna Bolena at the Met, 2015, with Jamie Barton (Giovanna), Radvanovsky, Tamara Mumford (Mark Smeaton), Ildar Abdrazakov (Enrico) and Stephen Costello (Riccardo)
© Beth Bergman

TWO of Radvanovsky’s idols in this repertoire are Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé, “both of whom could take a larger voice and pare it down when the music demands, because in Donizetti and Bellini you have to be able to whittle down the voice, as well as have those full, blasting moments. There are certain moments in all three of these operas that everybody waits for—‘Giudici? Ad Anna?’ in Anna Bolena, ‘Figlia impura di Bolena’ in Maria Stuarda, the big confrontation scene. Sutherland could sing all that lavish coloratura so precisely! If singing were a sport, I think the closest sport would be figure skating. It’s so technically accurate, but there is such a great degree of artistry that you have to have as a figure skater. She would definitely be a champion.” 

Years ago, Radvanovsky had a chance to meet another of her idols, Leontyne Price, in the hallway at the Metropolitan Opera. “Maestro Levine caught my eye and said, ‘Sondra, I want you to meet Leontyne Price.’ He said, ‘Leontyne, she is the new you.’ She said, ‘No, you’re not the new me. You go be the one and only you.’ That’s really been my motto my whole career—not to be a copy of someone else, but just to be me. Not everybody loves my voice. But it’s my voice. It’s how I sound.”

About the criticisms she has received during her career, she says, “I am not going to lie to you. When I was younger, it really did hurt me, and it definitely affected me—until I read a biography about Maria Callas. People said the same about her. And she said, ‘I would rather be unusual than boring.’ I realized that I was looking at it the wrong way. I can’t change it. It’s the voice that I was born with, it’s who I am, and I might as well embrace it. Yeah, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But nor was Callas. There was this turning point when I was in my thirties, and I just said, ‘I’m going to embrace it.’ And that’s when my career started to change, because I wasn’t trying to change. I was true to myself. That’s what I tell so many young singers—‘Embrace your quirkiness.’ A lot of people expect singers to fit into a box—lyric soprano, coloratura soprano. I don’t fit into one box. A person that sings Roberto Devereux probably doesn’t sing Manon Lescaut. But I do.” spacer 

Jennifer Melick is managing editor of Symphony. 

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