“Many people have said, Sondra, why are you taking a step backwards vocally?” she said.
Admittedly, Radvanovsky’s powerful soprano is far from small. But the singer is bucking what passes for conventional wisdom these days. Having sung the major Italian roles of the so-called spinto repertory — the big meaty parts like Verdi’s Aida or Puccini’s Tosca — she’s now moving back, chronologically and in terms of vocal heft, to earlier music. Having already appeared at the Washington National Opera as Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in 2008, this week she is opening the season with the same composer’s “Anna Bolena,” a bel canto showpiece, written in 1830, about the doomed queen of England better known to English speakers as Anne Boleyn.
“The only difference for me between the Donizetti and the Verdi is [that Donizetti is] just a little more filigree, the singing,” said the 43-year-old soprano last week, sitting in her hotel room in downtown Washington before an evening rehearsal. “The problem is finding a balance between the vocalism and the acting. Because this music is so delicate. . . . Especially for a larger voice like mine, the temptation is just to go with the temperament and give it full (volume), and I have to really watch that.”
Bigger isn’t always better. It’s a hard lesson for opera singers to learn. When you’ve spent your career training to make yourself heard in an auditorium of 3,000 people without a microphone, you can come to believe that the point of the exercise is to make as much noise as possible. As a result, too many voices have foundered on the shoals of roles too large for them. Perhaps because of the emphasis on size, there are more singers around today who can do Wagner than there are genuine Verdians. So that Radvanovsky has emerged as a genuine Verdi star is hardly a surprise; she’s a fine singer, and she has virtually no competition.
It certainly wasn’t an overnight success. Audiences, and administrators, seemed particularly slow to warm to Radvanovsky. “I think my voice perplexes people,” she said, calling it “unconventional.” Others have called it “cool” and “reserved.” Born in Illinois, she resolved to become an opera singer when she saw Placido Domingo singing in “Tosca” on television when she was 11; but although she was taken into the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at 25, and has performed pretty steadily with the company ever since, she never seemed to be a particular favorite.
As recently as 2009, she had no upcoming Met contracts after the new production of “Il Trovatore.” That production, however, was a turning point: After it, the Met embraced her, and she now has major contracts with the house through 2017. The highlight, over the next several seasons, are the three Donizetti operas about English history collectively dubbed “the Three Queens” — “Maria Stuarda,” “Roberto Devereux” and “Anna Bolena,” which she’s doing in Washington first.