Beverly Sills famously said that the role of Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux took ten years off her vocal life. Sills was a high-lying coloratura, but a fearless singer who, as her career moved forward, took on the Three Queens (Bolena, Stuarda and Elisabetta), and sang them with a depth and power that belied her light voice: she began more and more to push into the middle and bottom of her register – where the majority of these roles lie despite wild cadential high notes – and the performances were both dramatically and vocally enthralling. Lately, Anna Netrebko, Angela Meade, Joyce di Donato and Sondra Radvanovsky have brought two of the three to the Met, while only Mariella Devia, in a one-off at Carnegie Hall two years ago, has dared to take on (and conquer, locally) the Devereux Elisabetta.

Now Sondra Radvanovsky is the first soprano at the Met to sing all three – and in one season, and so far, successfully. Elisabetta is filled with far more coloratura than the other two and the role requires the soprano to sing at forte in all registers: in addition to the florid, high-and-low music, there is a great deal of exclamatory, accusatory singing. This Elisabetta is seen in old age, in somewhat frail health, in love with Robert, Earl of Essex, a man a third her age who does not love her, and realizing that, indeed, while she is fulfilled as a monarch, she is not, and will not be, fulfilled as a woman. It’s a wrenching role, emotionally fraught. It really is a situation that makes Lucia’s problems (“unstable girl thinks she’s jilted and goes bonkers”) seem like running out of milk for one’s morning coffee and it is impossible to just "warble" in the part. 

The gimmick is to be able to sing the impossibly difficult music without making it seem so. The results were mixed. In the first two acts Radvanovsky seemed like she was working for the notes, slightly to one side of the character. Her voice is the right size for the part, but it is thrilling rather than beautiful. She is a wise singer, however, and traces many phrases in long, pianissimo arcs, which make up for the harshness her tone can take on. Her chest voice is almost treacherously effective; her high notes gigantic and well-placed. Sills seemed as one with the anger and desperation that Donizetti and librettist Salvatore Cammerano wrote into this well-developed character, who goes from unbridled hope for Robert’s love in act one, to the rage of “You would be better off having walked live into your grave than to have insulted the daughter of Henry VIII” to the sadness of “Let no mortal say ‘I have seen the Queen of England weep.’” Radvanovsky is remarkable in the part, but she does not – as yet – overwhelm emotionally, until her final scene, which left the Met audience stunned. I have a feeling that she will grow into the first two acts. 

As her rival, Sara, and doing her finest singing yet for New York, is mezzo Elīna Garanča, who turns out to be the unwitting cause of Roberto's execution. Garanča made this conflicted character as real as possible, and looked and sounded gorgeous to boot. The titular tenor part is being taken by Matthew Polenzani, no longer a promising young pup, but a fully-formed great singer. His duets with both women were spectacular, and while the final moments of the cabaletta to his big aria, late in the opera, taxed him, it was a minor blemish. Mariusz Kwiecień’s Nottingham, Sara’s jealous husband, was in fine, if relentlessly loud, voice. He offers a good reading of the text, but he played his duet with the perfidious Sara in the last act as if he were drunk. 

This may be the notion of David McVicar, who both directed and designed this new production. His action for the four main characters was busy but brought out the best in all of them – both Garanča and Polenzani have been known to be placid on stage, but not here – and his Elisabetta was again, as in Stuarda a somewhat off-kilter, galumphing presence. McVicar’s handsome unit set, in severe black and gold, had the requisite grandeur, but the monarch’s white, marble tomb is present both at the start and final moments of the opera and Elisabetta drops dead after her final, (unfortunate, in this case) D natural. And he has included onstage galleries which are peopled with courtiers at all times, who gossip and occasionally applaud. A concept? A dead Elisabetta?

Maurizio Benini led the opera number by number, and the second act confrontation in which the Queen reveals the scarf, Nottingham discovers his wife’s infidelity, and Roberto realizes he’s in very hot water, lacked the punch it should have. Elsewhere he opted for either largo or presto. Still, it’s quite a show.