Roberto Devereux at San Francisco Opera
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In Review > North America

Roberto Devereux

San Francisco Opera

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Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux at San Francisco Opera
Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
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Russell Thomas in the title role of San Francisco Opera's Roberto Devereux
Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
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Jamie Barton's Sarah
Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

IT HAS BEEN NEARLY forty years since San Francisco Opera produced Roberto Devereux, as a vehicle for diva Montserrat Caballé, who sang just a single performance of the SFO run before cancelling due to illness. The company’s return to Donizetti’s Tudor drama this fall was a triumph, with soprano Sondra Radvanovsky starring as Elisabetta in the local premiere of Stephen Lawless’s production. With an ebullient supporting cast and masterful music direction from conductor Riccardo Frizza, the opening night performance on September 8 cast a powerful spell. Radvanovsky eschewed conventional diva glamor, choosing to embody the elderly queen in bold dramatic strokes. Her Elisabetta appeared regal before her court but was revealed in private to be a frail, tremulous, and vengeful woman; Ingeborg Bernerth's excellent costume designs delineated the shift between these spheres. Radvanovsky’s large, penetrating soprano is aptly majestic, and she sang Elisabetta with a ravishing mix of steely command and poignant allure; after a few moments of smudged passagework in her first scene, her generous tone and unfaltering musicianship were simply thrilling to hear. Her assumption built in intensity as the evening progressed; she seemed to allow her fury to expand by degrees, revealing new depths of emotion until her riveting aria-finale, “Vivi, ingrate,” was capped by a breathtakingly propulsive cabaletta. 

Radvanovsky was in excellent company. In the title role, tenor Russell Thomas made an indelible impression. His sturdy physique and clear, unforced tenor yielded an ardent Act I duet with Sarah, and he sang with elegant line in his Tower of London aria, “Come uno spirito angelico.” As Sarah, Jamie Barton deployed her velvety, richly colored mezzo with beauty and urgency to limn the character’s desire and anguish. Andrew Manea’s dark-hued baritone registered with potency as the Duke of Nottingham. The Lawless production, first seen at Dallas Opera in 2009, features scenic designs by the late Benoît Dugardyn that place the action in a unit set modeled on Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. During the overture, the staging offers a kind of whirlwind backstory: vitrines displayed the figures of young Elizabeth, flanked by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and Elizabeth sent Essex into battle amid maps and cardboard ships. The director’s scheme included a claustrophobic chamber for Sarah and Nottingham, and a metallic enclosure for the Tower scene. Lawless also proved effective in evoking the public nature of the opera’s events; Ian Robertson’s chorus sang with gusto throughout, serving as observers of the regime while courtiers Cecil (Amitai Pati) and Raleigh (Christian Pursell), smirked and skulked and assumed watchful positions. 

Frizza conducted an ideally paced performance, driving the action and illuminating the shifting allegiances, emotions, and sheer brilliance of Donizetti’s score in each new episode.  —Georgia Rowe 

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