Radvanovsky Takes the Throne in ‘Roberto Devereux’

April 3, 2016 Updated: April 5, 2016

NEW YORK—Sondra Radvanovsky again triumphed in the last work of Donizetti’s Tudor Queen trilogy, “Roberto Devereux.” She had previously starred at the Metropolitan Opera in the first two of the operas, “Anna Bolena” and “Maria Stuarda.” This is the Met’s first staging of “Roberto Devereux.”

In the first, she portrayed the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, one of the wives of Henry VIII. In “Maria Stuarda” she played Henry’s daughter from his first marriage. She was executed by order of her half-sister Elizabeth I (daughter of Henry and Boleyn), here called Elisabetta, who had been crowned the Queen of England.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta in Donizetti's Roberto Devereux. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
Sondra Radvanovsky is brilliant as Elisabetta in Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux.” (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

“Roberto Devereux” is also loosely based on English history.  The title character is the Earl of Essex, and Elisabetta, no beauty to begin with, is now elderly and unsteady of gait. She is also desperately in love with Devereux, who is about 30 years her junior.

Devereux happens to be in love with the queen’s confidante Sara, but Elisabetta, unaware of the relationship between him and Sara, ordered the young woman to marry the Duke of Nottingham. He, in turn, was a friend of Devereux’s.

Radvanovsky is extraordinary as Elisabetta.

Devereux had been sent to Ireland to battle the rebels. He was unsuccessful and, in contravention of the queen’s orders, returned to England. Now, he is suspected of treason.

The opera begins with Sara, upset because of her lingering feelings for Devereux. Elisabetta then appears and informs Sara that Nottingham had convinced her to see the alleged traitor. The queen is not averse to pardoning him from a charge of treason. Her only qualm is that she fears he is interested in another woman.

When the queen meets Devereux, she recalls their earlier romance and reminds him of a ring she had once given him. She confronts him about her fear that he is two-timing her, but he denies the allegation.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta and Matthew Polenzani in the title role of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta and Matthew Polenzani in the title role of Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux,” the third of the Tudor Queen trilogy the Met staged this season. (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Nottingham shows up and assures his friend that he will try to defend him at the upcoming council meeting that has been scheduled to consider the charges. Nottingham is concerned about his wife because of her strange behavior; he found her crying while knitting a blue scarf.

When Devereux is finally alone with Sara, he expresses his anger that she has married Nottingham during his absence. When she points out that he is still wearing the queen’s ring, he removes it. Sara gives him the blue scarf, not the smartest move under the circumstances.

Despite Nottingham’s defense, the council finds Devereux guilty and imposes the death sentence. When he is arrested, the scarf is discovered and delivered to Elisabetta. When Devereux is brought in, Elisabetta confronts him about the scarf. Nottingham sees it and, realizing that his wife is unfaithful, becomes furious at his former friend. He doesn’t try to stop Elisabetta when she signs the warrant for Devereux’s execution.

Elīna Garanča as Sara in Donizetti's Roberto Devereux. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
Elina Garanca as Sara, who is both Elisabetta’s confidante and, unbeknownst to her, also her rival. (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Devereux sends a letter to Sara, asking her to show the ring to Elisabetta and plead for clemency.  Nottingham foils the plan when he discovers the letter.

In the Tower of London, Devereux’s last thoughts are of Sara.

Meanwhile, Elisabetta harbors the hope that Devereux will send her the ring as a sign of possible reconciliation. Sara finally delivers it, confessing that she is the queen’s rival. Elisabetta is ready to halt the execution but learns that Devereux has already been put to death.

Nottingham reveals that he postponed delivery of the ring because he wanted revenge. Elisabetta sends Nottingham and Sara to prison while she goes mad and relinquishes the throne.

The rest of the cast is also superb.

Radvanovsky is extraordinary as Elisabetta. Her acting is reminiscent of Bette Davis, who played the queen in two movies. The first, “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” roughly covered the same events as the opera and took similar liberties with history.

Radvanovsky’s singing of this florid music was also superb, and she brought the house down with her mad scene.

The rest of the cast is also superb. In a piece of luxury casting, the role of Sara is played by mezzo-soprano star Elina Garanca. The two male leads are the pair who were so memorable recently in “The Pearl Fishers”: Tenor Matthew Polenzani is Devereux, and baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is Nottingham.

A scene from Donizetti's Roberto Devereux. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
A scene from Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux.” (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

David McVicar, who directed “Anna Bolena” and “Maria Stuarda,” does the same here. With costumes by Moritz Junge, the production brings out the drama and leaves the showy effects to the singers and Donizetti’s bel canto music.

Conductor Maurizio Benini and the Met orchestra served the music well and gracefully supported the singers.

Radvanovsky’s performances in the Tudor Queen operas confirm her place on the top rung of the operatic world. This has also been a good year for Donizetti with five of his operas, and all fine productions, at the Met this season.

‘Roberto Devereux’
Metropolitan Opera House
30 Lincoln Center Plaza
Tickets: 212-362-6000 or MetOpera.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Closes: April 19

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.