Sondra Radvanovsky sings many of the most challenging roles ever written for a soprano. Three of those roles – Donizetti’s Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots), and Queen Elizabeth I – have been huge successes for her onstage. Now at Lyric she’s put the finales of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux together for “The Three Queens“, a uniquely exciting presentation of these scenes in a semi-staged performance.
“I came to Lyric with the project,” Sondra says, “in a conversation with Anthony Freud. I have to give Riccardo Frizza credit for this, since it all came from his imagination.” Some time ago Maestro Frizza had suggested doing the final scenes of the three operas, and then “I picked up the ball and ran with it,” recalls Sondra. She chose the finales because “quite frankly, it’s the best music in all three operas. Donizetti has a way of really ending with a punch.”
The first singer to perform all three of these complete operas in a single season (2015/16) at the Metropolitan Opera, Sondra did a huge amount of research on Anne, Mary, and Elizabeth, including extensive reading and visits to English castles, as well as to the Tower of London. The research helped her enormously in getting to know the characters of these women. She anticipates that, even without period costumes and makeup, “I’ll be able to embody them with just my voice, some gestures, the gowns, and what [director] Matthew Ozawa does onstage.”
Separate gowns for each character have been designed especially for Sondra by Rubin Singer, one of the most important designers on the international fashion scene. “We can tell these women’s stories with the gowns,” the soprano says. “We didn’t want them to be ‘costume-y,’ because that’s too literal, and this isn’t a full production – it’s a very fine line. But there are aspects of the character that are shown in all three of the gowns.”
The scenes will be performed in the order in which Donizetti wrote the three operas. “Doing them in this order will help the audience to see how all three were related,” says Sondra. “We’re trying to find how all three lives affected each other, how they were bound to each other, whether they knew it or not. I think their lives are so intertwined.”
In her final scene, Donizetti’s Anne Boleyn goes through an exhausting emotional journey, experiencing what Sondra describes as “a kind of stress-related dementia.” The final minutes of the scene involve stupendous vocal fireworks, whereas Mary Stuart’s deeply moving final scene is more lyrical, without a lot of flamboyant vocal display. To Sondra, this is entirely right, “because I think she was such a grounded woman, such a principled woman, and that shows in the music.” As for Elizabeth I, she gets probably the most vocally and dramatically intense scene that Donizetti ever composed for any of his leading ladies. At the same time, it shows “the true Elizabeth, and that means vulnerability. I think she was a very vulnerable woman. More than anything else in the world, she wanted to be loved not as a queen, but as a woman.”
Sondra is excited to be taking on this project with Maestro Frizza, a conductor she feels was “born to this music.” It’s gratifying for her that “he understands my voice better than almost any other conductor in this repertoire.” They have what Sondra calls a “synergy. He knows how I’m going to create a phrase even before I sing the phrase.” Collaborating onstage with the soprano and conductor, singing the supporting roles in these scenes, are several artists from the Ryan Opera Center. Sondra’s always been impressed with the program: “I find the singers so thoroughly prepared, not just in their singing but in their diction, their languages. They’ve been so well trained, and vocally they’re some of the greatest singers in North America.”
What you see in “The Three Queens” is, as Sondra says, “better than any soap opera, because it truly happened! These three were amazing women, and it’s exciting to have a glimpse into who they were. British royalty now is really hot – the Queen, Kate, William, Harry, Meghan – and “The Three Queens” is a tagalong to that. People are just fascinated by British royals. If you love them, you’re going to love this. These pieces give you some of the best Italian music you can get, and onstage it’s blood and guts, like watching the TV series The Tudors. It’s just as good, and it’s real – it happened!”