Sondra's Three Queens earn "thunderous ovation" in Chicago Sondra Radvanovsky (Anna Bolena) in The Three Queens, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2019. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Sondra's Three Queens earn "thunderous ovation" in Chicago

Michael Pecak

As a post-Thanksgiving treat for Chicago opera-lovers, Lyric Opera of Chicago presents three performances of Three Queens, featuring soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in finales from Donizetti’s Tudor operas: Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux.

Billed as selected excerpts from three operas, the event comes across on paper as a kind of combination Donizetti-teaser and superstar feature concert. Yet, the experience was remarkably gratifying artistically thanks not only to the operas’ shared backstories, but also to director Matthew Ozawa’s unity of concept through the scenes and, of course, Radvanovsky’s riveting portrayal of Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, and Elizabeth I.

Sondra Radvanovsky (Maria Stuarda) in The Three Queens, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2019. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Radvanovsky pitched this “Three Queens” idea to LOC, but she credits it as the brainchild of conductor Riccardo Frizza, who leads the LOC Orchestra for these performances. Frizza knows the bel canto repertoire like few other modern-day conductors and led the LOC orchestra with superb control, giving Radvanovsky all the flexibility she wanted for vocal nuances while also maintaining the dramatic flow of each scene as a whole.

An effective programming touch, the overtures from each of the operas preceded their respective scenes, allowing the LOC orchestra to flex its muscles and prove yet again that this is one of the top Italian-repertoire ensembles outside of Italy. Especially when a native like Frizza, regular guest Marco Armiliato, or Enrique Mazzola (the company’s Music Director Designate) is at the helm, the LOC orchestra brings to this music an irresistible verve, clarity, and sensitivity.

Sondra Radvanovsky (Elizabeth I) in The Three Queens, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2019. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Ozawa’s staging was minimalist but visually and dramatically effective, utilizing a suspended platform, appropriate backdrops, carefully chosen color schemes, and basic props. It was enough to represent the three queens’ dire predicaments while underscoring their emotional states, which at the finales of these operas are mix of rage, hallucination, resignation, or forgiveness. Moreover, the performance never felt like a park-and-bark concert; the singers and chorus engaged with the heroines and helped shape an actual story.

Sondra Radvanovsky (Elizabeth I) in The Three Queens, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2019. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Although Radvanovsky was the unquestionable star of the evening, what I loved most about this performance was the inclusion of Ryan Opera Center young artists in the supporting roles. Tenors Eric Ferring and Mario Rojas, baritones Christopher Kenney and Ricardo José Rivera, and basses David Weigel and Anthony Reed all formed a marvelous ensemble, making one wish we could have heard more of their characters’ solo numbers from the operas. Contralto Lauren Decker and mezzo Kathleen Felty were particular standouts as dramatic and vocal foils to Radvanovksy’s doomed queens. Both Decker and Felty impress with their rich, expressive instruments and stage instincts notable for their sincerity.

With a program like “The Three Queens” Sondra Radvanovsky continues to solidify her reputation as one of today’s leading bel canto sopranos. During the 2015-16 season, she made history at the Metropolitan Opera singing all three of Donizetti’s Tudor Queens in a single season. To sing these roles in a concentrated two-hour program, such as at the Lyric this week, presents its own challenges. On the surface, Donizetti’s music may seem stylistically uniform, but he succeeds in capturing each queen’s particular circumstances and individual emotional states with arresting subtlety.

Sondra Radvanovsky (Maria Stuarda) with Mario Rojas in The Three Queens, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2019. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Embodying these characters takes harrowing virtuosity, something Radvanovsky clearly possesses and relishes. To my eyes and ears, her most affective portrayal was of Elizabeth I in the finale of Roberto Devereux. One can only marvel at Radvanovsky’s handling of the emotional rollercoaster Elizabeth experiences in this finale scene. Within the vocal roulades of her cadenzas, high notes were like screams of rage, while softer passages were like moments of prayerful resignation. The Illinois-born soprano was rewarded with a thunderous ovation from the spellbound Chicago audience.

Sondra Radvanovsky returns to Chicago in February 2020 to make her role debut as Lisa in LOC’s production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.

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