Living Dangerously with Donizetti

Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux

three operas by Gaetano Donizetti, directed by David McVicar, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, 2015–2016 season
Roberto Devereux will be broadcast on PBS on August 28 and will be available in August on Met Opera on Demand; video excerpts from all three can be viewed at metopera.org
Elīna Garanča as Sara and Sondra Radvanovsky as Elizabeth I in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Elīna Garanča as Sara and Sondra Radvanovsky as Elizabeth I in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux

After his first great success with Anna Bolena (1830), on the doomed second wife of Henry VIII, Gaetano Donizetti wrote two more operas on subjects drawn from English Tudor history: Maria Stuarda (1835), on the doomed Scottish queen, and Roberto Devereux (1837), on the Earl of Essex, the doomed favorite of Elizabeth I.1 Each had a different librettist: Felice Romani, the author of Anna Bolena, drew on two Italian plays about her; Maria Stuarda was adapted by Giuseppe Bardari from a play by Friedrich Schiller; and Salvadore Cammarano used French literary sources for Roberto Devereux.

If we think of them as a “Tudor trilogy” today, it is not because Donizetti conceived of them that way, but because Beverly Sills sang all three at the New York City Opera in the early 1970s. As the City Opera’s publicity-savvy star wrote in Beverly: An Autobiography (1987), her vocal coach, Roland Gagnon, “wanted me to become the first soprano in modern opera history ever to sing the three queens” and thus occupy her “own little niche in opera history.” Apparently they were unaware that the Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer already occupied that particular niche in Europe, but Sills went her one better in 1974, singing all three in the same season at City Opera. (Despite her impressive voice and a distinguished career in Italy, where she was especially known for singing Donizetti roles, Gencer never sang at the Metropolitan Opera.)

At the time when Sills was seeking her niche in history across the plaza, the Met had never performed any of Donizetti’s Tudor operas, and would not for another four decades. In the late 1950s Met General Manager Rudolf Bing refused to produce Anna Bolena for Maria Callas, who had had a great success in the role at La Scala, telling her it was “an old bore of an opera.” Finally the Met, trusting in the star power of the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, planned to stage all three over several seasons, but after Netrebko sang the company’s first Anna Bolena in 2011 she withdrew from the other two roles, having decided that they were not right for her voice.

Maria Stuarda arrived at the end of 2012 with Joyce DiDonato in the title role, and in the meantime the Met persuaded the American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky not only to star in its first Roberto Devereux in the spring of 2016 but also to sing all three during the 2015–2016 season. Other sopranos since Sills had sung all three, but no one had done them all in one season for the same company, and the Met prominently publicized Radvanovsky’s taking on the challenge of repeating Sills’s feat. So one could not help but wonder: How would their performances compare?

Sills and Radvanovsky came to Donizetti’s queens from very different directions. Sills had been a reliable if unremarkable member of City Opera for a decade, singing mostly light lyric and coloratura roles in operas such as Die Fledermaus, The Ballad of Baby Doe, Manon, and The Tales of Hoffmann, when in 1966, at the age of thirty-seven, she become an overnight star as Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, a rarity at the time, soon after the company moved to its new home at Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater. Nine years later, just before Sills’s belated Metropolitan Opera debut, the critic Peter G. Davis looked back on her Cleopatra as the moment “when everything fell into place for her vocally”: “the voice seemed to take on new richness and body; trills, embellishments and bel canto flourishes were tossed off with effortless agility and real musical point.”

After that success, Sills might have taken her singing teacher’s advice and preserved her voice by sticking to the lighter roles to which it was best suited. Instead, she wrote, she “began experiencing a much more positive urge to take on more difficult bel canto roles…. Better to have ten glorious years than twenty safe and ultimately boring ones. I wanted to live dangerously.” The so-called bel canto revival had been underway since the 1950s, with Callas, Gencer, Montserrat Caballé, and others resurrecting long-neglected works of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. Sills herself won rave reviews for her 1969 debut at La Scala in Rossini’s Siege of Corinth. But it’s hard not to hear in her wish to “live dangerously” the ambition to emulate the recently retired Callas, who had had her own “ten glorious years” but whose risk-taking in demanding roles was widely believed to have ruined her voice.

Donizetti’s queens, however, were not an obvious direction for Sills to take. They were, among other things, still little known, especially in America. (Even today they are not often seen.) Anna Bolena had had its first twentieth-century performance in 1947 in Barcelona; a 1956 revival in Bergamo (Donizetti’s birthplace) led to Luchino Visconti’s production at La Scala the following year, with Callas in costumes inspired by Holbein’s portraits of Anne Boleyn. Maria Stuarda was first revived in Bergamo in 1958. Roberto Deveureux had to wait until 1964, when Gencer sang it in Naples.

Nor was Sills initially much interested in them. She wrote that Roland Gagnon and the director Tito Capobianco had been urging her to consider Roberto Devereux since the mid-1960s. What finally convinced her, she said, was a line sung by Elizabeth as she condemns Devereux to death: “It would have been better for you to incite the wrath of God than to incite the wrath of the daughter of the terrible Henry the Eighth.”

Those words, as Sills recognized, lie flat on the page, but a singer can give them tremendous impact. Roberto Devereux is full of such dramatic moments—especially for the queen—waiting to be seized and brought to vivid life. Essex is found guilty of treason and her councilors attempt to get her to sign his death warrant, but Donizetti’s Elizabeth seems unconcerned with whether or not he is guilty; she is obsessed with the possibility that he may love another woman and condemns him in a jealous rage when she finds apparent evidence of his infidelity, then, in one of Donizetti’s most inspired scenes, sinks into bitter despair when he is executed.

Beverly Sills and John Alexander in Roberto Devereux, Wolf Trap, 1975

The problem for Sills was that Elizabeth is one of the most challenging roles in the bel canto repertory, encompassing both highly ornamented singing and forceful declamation and requiring power over a wide vocal range. Few have met all of its demands.2 Much of it was not plausibly within reach of Sills’s silvery voice, but she was undeterred. Gagnon, she wrote, introduced her

to a new way of singing. He showed me how I could achieve various dramatic effects through the use of text…. Instead of using my body to express an emotion or attitude, I could convey the same thing by the way I sang a word…. That may not sound revolutionary, but the way Roland worked, it was.

Had it really never occurred to Sills before to use the words to “express an emotion or attitude”? Such “a new way of singing” would hardly sound revolutionary to anyone who had, for example, listened carefully to Callas’s recordings, but Callas’s intense attention to words and phrasing was part of her extraordinary dramatic sensibility, not a compensation for weakness in her middle and lower registers. Nonetheless Sills managed to finesse her vocal limitations and found her way into the dramatic core of the role: in October 1970 she triumphed in Roberto Devereux. She was on the cover of Time in costume as Elizabeth. She then took on Maria Stuarda in 1972 and Anna Bolena in 1973virtuoso roles scarcely less demanding than Elizabeth—recorded all three, and sang them in revivals at City Opera in the following years.

The “Tudor trilogy” became so associated with Sills, and she had by that time become so famous in the US (Time called her “America’s Queen of Opera”), not only for her singing but for her appearances on television talk shows, that it is easy to forget that her reviews at the time were not entirely favorable. Harold Schonberg, the New York Times critic, found that on the opening night of Roberto Devereux she “sounded shrill and nervous, and was constantly having pitch trouble.” (He didn’t think much of the opera either, calling it “predictable” and “tired”; admittedly it’s not uniformly inspired, apart from Elizabeth’s music.) After many readers complained about his review, he wrote another article a month later defending it, arguing that

Sills is a coloratura manqué who, in basic matters, cannot fully match the requirements of the roles she undertakes…. Often there is a feeling of strain and even desperation as she tries to maneuver her voice into areas for which it was not intended.

Though he praised “her characterization, with its wealth of detail, its power and imperiousness, its alternation between Queen and woman in love,” that was not, he felt, enough: “I looked for equal authority in the vocal delivery, and did not find it.”

Beverly Sills and Plácido Domingo in a performance of Roberto Devereux at New York City Opera, 1970. Sills wrote in her autobiography that they played their characters ‘much the same way Bette Davis and Errol Flynn portrayed them in Elizabeth and Essex.’
Beth Bergman
Beverly Sills and Plácido Domingo in a performance of Roberto Devereux at New York City Opera, 1970. Sills wrote in her autobiography that they played their characters ‘much the same way Bette Davis and Errol Flynn portrayed them in Elizabeth and Essex.’

The recording—made in 1969, before Sills sang the role onstage—tends to confirm Schonberg’s judgment.3 If her voice had fallen into place in 1966, it was already beginning to come apart by the time she first sang Roberto Devereux. Critics had similar doubts about her Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena, though they usually also found much to praise in some aspects of her singing as well as in her dramatic commitment. One can imagine that she was convincing in the theater, with the fifty-five-pound costume and the two hours of makeup that transformed her into the elderly Elizabeth. (Not to mention a lot of slapping: Elizabeth slapping Essex, later Anna slapping Henry. In her memoir she recalls, “I once smacked a tenor so hard his moustache landed up on his eyebrows.”) While Sills claimed that Roberto Devereux “was both the greatest artistic challenge and the finest achievement of my career,” she also acknowledged that it shortened her career by at least four years—a price that she was happy to pay.

Sondra Radvanovsky comes to Donizetti with a very different kind of voice. She has made her career primarily in heavier Verdi roles—Leonora in Il Trovatore, Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera, Elena in I Vespri Siciliani—as well as the leads in Aida, Tosca, and Rusalka. She has in the past few years had some success singing the title role in Norma, at the Met and elsewhere, and sang all three of Donizetti’s queens in other cities before bringing them to the Met. But Radvanovsky is, in her own way, as unsuited to these roles as Sills was.

Many find her a thrilling singer; the ovations for her at the Met this season were often loud and long. However, her voice will not please everyone. It is large and powerful, but at times unruly and not fully under her control; it seems produced with more effort than ease. She has trouble scaling it down to a fine line or singing softly; she executes coloratura lines with care but often without their full expressive effect—of fury, for example—and she hesitates to dominate an ensemble, as when Elizabeth condemns Essex. Her acting is more a matter of grand gestures than the “wealth of detail” for which Harold Schonberg credited Sills, nor does she display a keen sense that, as Sills put it, one can “achieve various dramatic effects through the use of text,” i.e., by sensitive phrasing and emphasis on the words. There are, to be sure, performances, or parts of performances, when everything in her voice falls into place, but her inconsistency is frustrating.

Sonia Radvanovsky in Roberto Devereux, Metropolitan Opera, New York City, 2016

Over the course of the Met season, Anna Bolena was not well served by Radvanovsky’s alternately hard-edged and drooping tone and loud but none-too-accurate high notes, sometimes thrown in at unexpected places. Maria Stuarda showed her at her finest, with beautifully controlled singing, and she made the most of the great confrontation in which, goaded by Elizabeth, Mary calls her royal cousin a “vile bastard” who profanes the English throne, thus assuring her own execution. (Schiller invented the scene of their meeting but it is great theater, and it gave Donizetti the opportunity to bring down the curtain with maximum excitement.)

This spring, Roberto Devereux found her in erratic form. A performance early in the run was marred by off-pitch singing. The last was considerably better; her voice was more focused and she managed, especially in her final scene, some marvelously long, beautiful vocal lines. She was not helped by Maurizio Benini’s sagging, lethargic conducting. The Met production, by David McVicar (who also directed Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda), was dominated at the beginning and end of the opera by Elizabeth’s tomb, and had, as if informed by some secondhand notion of the theatricality of the Tudor court, courtiers watching the action from both sides.

The staging did not get in the way of the drama as much as the emphasis in Radvanovsky’s portrayal—in case the looming tomb did not suffice—on Elizabeth’s age. As one critic put it, she “was directed to twitch and dodder in the timeworn Bette Davis manner,” referring to the 1939 film The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. It made for a one-dimensional characterization. In the final scene, she cast off her wig to reveal wispy white hair and staggered around the stage in a nightgown, as if not fully trusting Donizetti’s remarkable music to convey the queen’s despair at Essex’s death. It was difficult to reconcile the twitching and doddering woman one was watching with the vigorous vocal lines she was singing. Yet nothing in Roberto Devereux prescribes that Elizabeth should be played as an old woman, and it seemed a mistake, whether based on history—the queen was sixty-seven when Essex was executed—or on a performance tradition of playing her as an elderly woman that reaches past Sills to Hollywood and beyond.

That disjunction was a reminder that Roberto Devereux—and Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda—are not really about history. Though they are based on historical figures and events, as operas they are more faithful to the conventions of the genre—in which characters torn by love, jealousy, revenge, and other outsized passions are created in great vocal outpourings—than to the history of Tudor England. Essex had indeed been a favorite of the aging Elizabeth and fell out of favor because of military incompetence and disrespect for the queen. But much in Roberto Devereux is invented, if not preposterous: however saddened she may have been by his execution, she signed his death warrant because he had raised a rebellion and attempted to depose her, not because she was jealous that he loved someone else. And she certainly did not abdicate in favor of James VI of Scotland upon hearing that the ax had fallen, as she does in Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto.

An opera about Elizabeth and Essex could, rather than inventing a love triangle, mine the dramatic potential in the conflict between her feelings for him and her need to deal ruthlessly with his treason. Benjamin Britten took this approach in Gloriana, based on Lytton Strachey’s 1928 Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History. (It was a disaster at its premiere, judged too somber for its occasion, the celebrations of the coronation of the second Elizabeth in 1953, and it has seldom been revived.)

There have been modern productions of Roberto Devereux (though not the Met’s) that found ways of evoking the intrigue and the ruthless power plays of the Tudor court, but this is not explicit in Cammarano’s text. Given the threat of censorship under which composers in Donizetti’s time had to work, it was safer to steer clear of depictions of rulers making political decisions and instead to find situations for exciting singing in things like love triangles.4

That is what Felice Romani did in Anna Bolena, the plot of which is driven solely by Henry having fallen out of love with Anne and in love with Jane Seymour. It is what Cammarano did in adapting his highly romanticized sources for Roberto Devereux, primarily Jacques-François Ancelot’s tragedy Élisabeth d’Angleterre (1829). The result is melodrama. It is overwrought, even at times absurd, but so is most nineteenth-century Italian opera. It is also the occasion for some of Donizetti’s most powerful music, which is what makes Roberto Devereux, Anna Bolena, and Maria Stuarda worth reviving today. By that measure, Sondra Radvanovsky’s “Tudor trilogy” was, as Peter Davis wrote of Beverly Sills’s, “a fascinating one-woman tour de force, but ultimately an interesting failure.”

  1. 1

    Elizabeth I was also a character in an earlier opera by Donizetti, Elisabetta al Castello di Kenilworth (1829), based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott, but it has had few modern revivals—and it has a happy ending. English history was a popular source for subjects among early-nineteenth-century Italian composers, and there were a number of operas about Elizabeth, including Rossini’s Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra (1815), and about Mary Stuart. 

  2. 2

    Gencer was superb in Naples in 1964. Montserrat Caballé was uncommonly engaged in a performance at Aix in 1977. Perhaps the finest Elizabeth today is Mariella Devia, who in her late sixties still has a remarkably well-preserved voice. It may be lighter than ideal for the role, but excerpts from her Roberto Devereux in Madrid in October 2015 demonstrate what a singer with a mastery of bel canto style can accomplish in it. All of these can be found on CD or on YouTube, in whole or in part, as can performances by Sills. 

  3. 3

    For a more generous reappraisal of her recordings of the three operas, see Matthew Gurewitsch, “Sills’s Queens at Last Reclaim Their Thrones,” The New York Times, December 10, 2000.  

  4. 4

    Maria Stuarda had had a particularly difficult time with the censors, who objected to mentions in the libretto that Mary had plotted against Elizabeth and to her calling the English queen a “vile bastard.”