Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Sondra Radvanovsky’s Astounding Virgin Queen in Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” – Canadian Opera Company, Toronto, April 25, 2014

April 26th, 2014

The Toronto performances of Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” were remarkable in so many ways that “historic” seems not too outlandish an adjective to apply.

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky’s Elisabetta, created in the context of British Director Stephen Lawless’ now familiar trio of productions of operas based on stressful events consuming the English House of Tudor, proved to be an event of international significance.

Elizabeth and Essex

Donizetti’s highly dramatic opera is very loosely based on what is known about the aging Queen Elizabeth I’s fascination with the handsome young Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex.

[Below: Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex; resized image, based on a painting from life by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.]


The opera’s plot is fanciful (one should not learn one’s English history from 19th century Italian opera), yet it is not inconsistent with the ultimate fate of the characters portrayed in the opera.

Robert Devereux was the last person to be executed in the Tower of London. Queen Elizabeth I died not too long afterward, and King James I (to whom Lawless does homage in the final scene) ascended the English throne.

Sondra Radvanovsky’s Queen Elizabeth

Radvanovsky created an arresting portrait of Elisabetta (Queen Elizabeth I), haunted by the legacy of her parents, the queenslayer King Henry VIII and the victimized Ann Boleyn.

Jealous of any rivals for the affection of the young earl, Radvanovsky’s Elisabetta is near hysteria when her ministers outmaneuver the Queen by executing her favorite before she can pardon him.

[Below: Sondra Radvanovsky as the aged Queen Elisabetta; edited image, based on a Michael Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto.)


The beauty and power of Radvanovsky’s voice, combined with her extraordinary acting ability, resulted in a unforgettably vivid characterization of the iconic queen.

Leonardo Capalbo’s Roberto Devereux

The title role of Roberto, the Queen’s star-crossed object of affection, was brilliantly sung by American tenor Leonardo Capalbo.

A lyric tenor of the proper weight for Donizetti’s elegant melodies and ringing climaxes, Capalbo was entirely believable as the roguishly charming earl.

Capalbo received sustained applause for Roberto’s Tower Scene, with its plaintive cavatina. Dismayed and angry to find that he really was going to be beheaded, Capalbo’s Roberto sings both verses of the fast-paced cabaletta.

[Below: Roberto Devereux (Leonardo Capalbo, left) is summoned to the presence of Queen Elisabetta (Sondra Radvanovsky, right); edited image, based on a Michael Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto.]


Capalbo replaced the originally announced tenor, Giuseppe Filianoti (who was called back to Italy for a family emergency) for the first three of seven performances. Filianoti is scheduled to return for the final four performances.

Other Cast Members

Radvanovsky and Capalbo were surrounded by a strong cast of North Americans, some Canadian, some American (with Radvanovsky claimed by both nations).

The two remaining of the four principal roles were the Duke and Duchess of Nottingham (effectively sung and acted by Canadians Russell Braun and Allyson McHardy).

[Below: the Duke of Nottingham (Russell Braun, top right) confronts his wife, Sara (Allyson McHardy, bottom left); edited image, based on a Michael Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto.]


Canadian tenor Owen MacCausland was an obsequiously sinister Lord Cecil. American basso Matt Boehler impressed in the brief role of Sir Gualtiero Raleigh. Gordon Bintner and Neil Craighead drew the servant’s duties.

Radvanovsky and the Donizetti Revival, Second Stage

I have written that many performances of Donizetti operas in the 21st century are likely superior to any performed in the 180 or so years since their premieres, both theatrically and musically [See 21st Century Love for Donizetti’s “Elixir” for a comparison of the 19th and 21st century approaches to staging a Donizetti opera.]

Sondra Radvanovsky’s performances, be they of Puccini, Verdi or Donizetti roles are of the highest level of contemporary opera performance (which I believe is often superior to what has gone before.)

[Below: the aged Queen Elizabeth (Sondra Radvanovsky, front right) is haunted by the images, in display boxes, of her father Henry VIII, herself as a young child, and her mother, Ann Boleyn; edited image, based on a Michael Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto.]


This is the second time I have reviewed a Radvanovsky performance as part of the Lawless Trilogy [see Radvanovsky’s Astonishing Anna Bolena Adorns An Admirable Cast – Washington National Opera, October 6, 2012].

Before the New York City Opera’s promotion of the Tudor Trilogy of Donizetti’s operas “Anna Bolena”, “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux” for soprano Beverly Sills, the operas were not considered to be related.

Ming Cho Lee’s serviceable sets for the New York company were thematic, but lacked the intensive interrelationships that Director Lawless discovered in his close and affectionate study of the three opera scores.

[Below: Robert Devereux (Leonardo Capalbo, front right) squares off against Nottingham (Russell Braun, front left) observed by Cecil (Owen MacCausland, seated left) and Raleigh (Matt Boehler, on stairs at right). and the members of Parliament (the Canadian Opera Company chorus, distributed in the three levels above; edited image, based on a Michael Cooper photograph for the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto.]


Lawless and the Donizetti Revival, Second Stage

Lawless’ trilogy began with “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux”, as a project of The Dallas Opera.  Both of these productions were later mounted  by the Canadian Opera Company.

I reported on his Dallas “Devereux” (launched in The Dallas Opera’s final season in Fair Park) [See The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Papian, Costello in Lawless’ Dallas “Devereux” – January 23, 2009].

It was the Toronto “Stuarda” that I reviewed [see The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Stephen Lawless’ “Maria Stuarda” in Toronto – May 4, 2010.]

[Below: the Bard charms the court with a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; edited image, based on a Michael Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto.]


The Lawless Trilogy incorporates a distinctive style that requires an intense physical regimen. Lawless’ characters creep about the stage and engage in choreographed movements.

Often a performer is prostrate on the stage, with the persons being sung to crouched in expectant postures.

One recalls other directors whose work is intensely stylistic that for many (myself included) detract from the dramatic message of the performance.

But the Lawless choreography, in concert with Donizetti’s driving melodies and dramatic thrust, seems always to work well.

The Lawless-staged Tudor operas abound in interesting features. Lawless creates a series of pantomimes that take place during the distinctive “Roberto Devereux” overture – the later Paris version that contains the rousing theme from Roberto’s Tower of London cabaletta is used

Italian conductor Corrado Rovaris led an energetic performance. The Dallas Opera sets by Benoit Dugardyn, integral to the Lawless staging, enhanced the dramatic flow.

[Below: Elisabetta (Sondra Radvanovsky, right) speaks from the heart with Sara (Allyson McHardy; edited image, based on a Michael Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto. ]


The case for “Roberto Devereux”, the Opera

“Roberto Devereux”, even though it follows the conventions of Italian opera of the 1830s, has a dramatic thrust that has not yet been discovered by the larger opera-going public.

Every scene advances the drama. Most scenes are  crucial interactions between two of the four principals – Elisabetta and Roberto, Roberto and Sara, Nottingham and Roberto, Sara and Nottingham, Elisabetta and Nottingham, Sara and Elisabetta.

In every case, the music Donizetti has composed for the interaction is memorable. This is an opera that should be performed much more often than currently is the case! Its inclusion in Radvanovsky’s repertory should provide a major impetus to the opera’s fortunes.

[Below: Roberto Devereux (Leonardo Capalbo, left) presses Sara (Allyson McHardy, right) for an expression of her love; edited image, based on a Michael Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto.]


A Personal Assessment

This reviewer has been fortunate to have seen the major post-Callas Donizetti sopranos of the past and present generations, in live performances of Donizetti dramatic masterpieces at the San Francisco Opera and elsewhere, including Joan Sutherland, Leyla Gencer, Beverly Sills, Montserrat Caballé and Renée Fleming.

(Of that list, it is only Caballé that I have seen perform the “Roberto Devereux” Elisabetta in live performance.)

I believe that Radvanovsky, on the basis of the production’s Toronto opening night, has achieved the definitive interpretation of this complex role. Her savagely difficult final aria, with its leaping intervals, was especially noteworthy.

[Below: Queen Elisabetta (Sondra Radvanovsky, second from left) confronts Roberto Devereux (Leonardo Capalbo, third from left) as Nottingham (Russell Braun, second from right) disdains their encounter; edited image, based on a Michael Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto.]



I recommend this performance without reservation.


For my review of another Radvanovsky Donizetti performance, see: The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008.

For my reviews of Radvanovsky’s performances of Verdi works, see: Licitra, Radvanovsky Gleam in Lyric Opera’s Glorious New “Ernani”: Chicago, November 5, 2009and also, 

Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009, and also,

Verdi’s New Champion: Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009and also,

21st Century Verdi: Radvanovsky Leads World Class Lyric Opera “Ballo” Cast – Chicago, November 15, 2010and also,

Radvanovsky, Zajick, Lopardo, Anger Star in Conlon-led Verdi “Requiem” – San Francisco Symphony, October 22, 2011,

For my reviews of Radvanovsky’s performances of Puccini operas, see: Friedkin’s Miraculous, Radvanovsky’s Revelatory L.A. “Suor Angelica” – September 6, 2008 and also, 

Sondra Radvanovsky is a Radiant, Transcendent Tosca – Los Angeles Opera, May 18, 2013.

For my reviews of Russell Braun’s performances, see: Wagner Knows Best: Elegant San Diego Opera “Tannhauser” Sticks to the Story – January 26, 2008and also,

A new look for Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”: Zandra Rhodes in San Diego & S. F.

For my review of an Allyson McHardy performance, see: Deconstructing S.F. Opera’s Super-sized “Barber” – November 12, 2006.

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