Parlando: The COC Blog

5/2/2014

Sondra Radvanovsky: A bel canto journey

By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager

Sondra Radvanovsky - A bel canto journey

When superstar soprano Sondra Radvanovsky finished singing Aida’s great act III aria “O patria mia” in her 2010 COC and role debut, the audience response was unprecedented. Toronto had just experienced one of the most emotionally frank, technically superb, thrilling pieces of singing. The post-performance excitement in the lobby was palpable – her just-released CD of Verdi arias was selling out at the Opera Shop and patrons were simply abuzz with excitement, demanding to know when they would hear her again. They’re currently getting that chance with Radvanovsky’s rapturously-received return to the COC stage this spring as the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I (Elisabetta) in Roberto Devereux which, like Aida in 2010, represents another role debut.

Until recently, Radvanovsky’s repertoire was built on early- and middle-period Verdi heroines such as Elena in I vespri siciliani and Leonora in Il trovatore. It is only more recently that she has begun to explore earlier Italian 19th-century roles like Norma, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and now, Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. Convention dictates that big-voiced singers like Radvanovsky “graduate” forward, taking on even greater decibel-demanding, thickly orchestrated, post-Verdi roles like Puccini’s Turandot, Madama Butterfly and Minnie in The Girl of the Golden West. While Puccini’s Tosca is one of her staple, star turns, Radvanovsky has, somewhat unexpectedly, headed in the opposite direction, towards the earlier 19th-century heroines of Donizetti. In this corner of the repertoire, size of voice is not all that matters; instead, flexibility to sing demanding coloratura (highly ornamental music where several notes are sung on each syllable of the text); sustained vocal lines sung perfectly smoothly; and, an ability to colour the meaning of the text take precedence.

The soprano’s account of the path that led her to bel canto is fascinating and revealing. “I am not one to lie about my past. As a child I was intubated; I had pneumonia and my doctor feels that the tube nicked one of my vocal chords which resulted in the polyp I had all of my singing life. In 2002 I had it removed and had to learn how to sing all over again. It opened up a new world for me, a world I never thought or imagined musically I would be singing. That really started with [the 2008 Washington National Opera production of] Lucrezia Borgia but it was also my voice coach, Tony Manoli, who pointed me in that direction.” Despite her many accomplishments as a Verdi singer, he was convinced she had the potential to be even greater in the bel canto repertoire. Together, they re-worked her technique post-surgery and in the process, she feels she became a better singer. “It was a godsend. No one else heard it; Manoli was the only one.” The ultimate affirmation of this vocal transformation was her recent fall 2013 Metropolitan Opera Norma (the summit of all bel canto roles) – “it was a huge success…HUGE!”

Roberto Devereux

With her COC Elisabetta, Radvanovsky will have sung all three of Donizetti’s “Tudor queens” (Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda complete the trilogy), an undertaking few sopranos have managed to achieve – or survive! Famously, American soprano Beverly Sills, who performed all three at New York City Opera during the early 1970s, admitted they shortened her opera career. “Well,” says Radvanovsky, “I think our voices are a lot different; she was more of a lyric coloratura,” as opposed to Radvanovsky’s own fuller, dramatic instrument. “But I guess she wanted to risk it because it’s so exciting as an artist to perform all three.”

And now, having lived with the Tudor queens herself, Radvanovsky can attest to their dangerous fascination. “There is the common thread, of course, that they were all queens and so possess a nobility that one has to keep in mind in terms of stage deportment – with how they react and deal with other characters. Vocally, however, they are completely different. Donizetti chose to highlight earlier stages of the other queens’ lives whereas Elisabetta is at the end and she’s worn down; she’s a broken woman. She was a very strong queen as we know, but here she’s angry a lot and it shows in the vocal writing Donizetti gave her.

A scene from Roberto Devereux

If you look at the length of the role, Elisabetta is the shortest, especially compared to Anna Bolena which is a marathon. In fact, Elisabetta doesn’t appear in quite a bit of the opera, but she has the key moments and, by far, the hardest music. In terms of vocal range, hers is the widest with a great amount of dramatic coloratura that is just unrelenting. It’s so easy to get caught up in the character’s temperament. As singers we can play the emotion in our body or it can get stuck in your voice… there’s good tension and there’s bad tension and one has to learn the difference between the two if you’re going to sing roles like Elisabetta and Norma – you have to know where to put the tension in your body and hopefully it doesn’t go to your throat.”

Radvanovsky will take on the Sills trifecta when she sings all three Tudor queens in 2015/2016 at the Metropolitan Opera. “I start in the fall with a new production of Roberto Devereux and then come back later in the season and do all three in a row. I’m not sure if I’m completely cuckoo or sane for doing this!” Before that, however, she is particularly keen on the COC’s Shakespearean Globe Theatre-inspired production for Devereux. Our audiences will recognize it from 2010’s Maria Stuarda but it was also the setting for Radvanovsky’s Anna Bolena at Washington National Opera in 2012. “I really like the whole concept of it being in the round, of the Globe Theatre influence, and it’s great for projecting the voice too – I don’t have to work as hard because I have all this resonant wood around me!”

Roberto Devereux runs at the Four Seasons Centre until May 21, 2014. For tickets and more information click here.

Photos: (top) Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta; (middle) (far right) Sondra Radvanovsky; (bottom) Sondra Radvanovsky, Leonardo Capalbo as Roberto Devereux and Matt Boehler as Sir Gualtiero Raleigh. All photos from the Canadian Opera Company production of Roberto Devereux, 2014. Photos: Michael Cooper

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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001