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
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…

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