Between 1816 and 1845, Gaetano Donizetti composed 75 operas. Of those, three or four are definitely part of the standard repertory, depending what country you’re in: Don Pasquale, L’Elisir d’amore, and Lucia di Lamermoor, and when a star coloratura soprano is available, there’s La Fille du regiment. Once in a while there is a revival of La Favorita, when a first-rank mezzo-soprano can be found for the central role who might be interested in taking on the challenge.
But the so-called Three Queen Operas: Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux are an altogether different matter. Each of these works was written with a different kind of singer in Donizetti’s mind.
The title part of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena belonged hands down, except for applause, to the legendary Giuditta Pasta, a rangy singer described by the critics of her time as a mezzo-soprano, but one with the ability to handle the high-lying tessitura of Bellini’s Annina (La Sonnambula) and the title role of Norma. Listen to the largely lyric music and one can easily see how Beverly Sills scored a success in this role.
When it comes to Maria Stuarda, the Spanish Diva Maria Malibran, another singer who comfortably sang both soprano and mezzo-soprano roles originated the part of Mary, Queen of Scots. In our time Joan Sutherland, Leyla Gencer, and, much later, Joyce Di Donato all were praised for their interpretations of this role. Any one of these star singers could and did bring something unique to the role of Mary.
Roberto Devereux was first sung by Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis, a soprano whose nasty temperament appears to have been her biggest claim to fame. The role is daunting, and its abundance of show-stopping arias tempted a number of divas throughout the years, notably Montserrat Caballé and Edita Gruberová.
But to our mind no singer in memory has been equal to the challenge the Canadian-American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky met in 2019 when, at the invitation of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and maestro Riccardo Frizza, she performed a long program featuring highlights from each of these three operas in one evening. The results were recorded and recently released by Pentatone in an impressive set of CD’s.
Sondra Radvanovsky is essentially a lyric-spinto soprano, but one capable of summoning the lung power for the kind of long-lined legato singing required to effectively deliver in Roberto Devereux the aria Vivi, ingrato and the many messa-di-voce demanded throughout the role’s range. On the other hand, she can surmount climactic moments with total aplomb. Her coloratura technique is inexhaustible. Her musicality, her elegant phrasing, her intelligent choice of embellishments, her idiomatic understanding and delivery of the text define Sondra Radvanovsky as one of the great singers of our time.
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