In One Weekend, a Double Dose of Donizetti

Sondra Radvanovsky shone, Vittorio Grigolo sounded overworked in
Sondra Radvanovsky shone, Vittorio Grigolo sounded overworked in "Lucrezia." (By Karin Cooper -- Washington National Opera)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gaetano Donizetti wrote 65 operas. The average operagoer might be able to name five or 10 of them. They are not performed often; some of them, hardly ever. They are creations of a specific place and time, written to show off star singers and please audiences. They are also extremely difficult to sing. But in Washington last weekend, you could see two of them -- "Lucrezia Borgia" at the Washington National Opera on Friday, with the soprano Sondra Radvanovsky making a triumphant company debut in the title role, and "Maria Padilla" at the Washington Concert Opera's single performance on Sunday.

To see both was to get an object lesson in bel canto style. Each performance had some formidable strengths: The "Lucrezia" offered amazing singing, with Radvanovsky pouring out molten rivers of sound; "Maria Padilla," at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium, offered stellar conducting from Antony Walker that helped the score to sound as it was meant to. Each of these components is essential to bringing these operas off. It would have been an almost unimaginable wealth had both been offered in the same performance.

Donizetti has been underappreciated almost since his death in 1848. Of the vaunted triumvirate of bel canto composers, he tends to be ranked lower than Rossini, the innovator, and Bellini, the lyrical poet of the style. Donizetti is stereotyped as a workman, cranking out one formulaic piece after another at top speed and with wildly varying results; an opera can range from the inspired to the pedestrian within the space of a few bars. His operas adhered to the strict formal demands of the day: arias followed by rapid cabalettas that gave the soloist a chance to show off; rousing ensembles to end the first act.

But in the last few decades, the opera world, eager to find new works for an entrenched repertory, reevaluated that view. Indeed, the stereotype is not quite fair. Donizetti did try to break things up a bit -- throwing in bits of melody, for example, that he never develops into a full-blown aria or ensemble, like Lucrezia's opening phrase in "Lucrezia Borgia." And the operas are full of little innovations. "Maria Padilla," one of his last works, includes not only a fine sextet (a la "Lucia di Lammermoor") but also a striking trio accompanied only by English horn; a richly characterized chorus that shows the courtiers first openly praising their ruler and then spreading dissatisfied gossip about his supposed mistress; and, perhaps most unusual, a mad scene for tenor, which certainly turns the accepted formula on its head.

Donizetti also endures because of his remarkable melodic gift. His pieces were tailored to the singers he worked with (such as Giorgio Ronconi, a baritone who so impressed him that he made a baritone the romantic lead in "Maria Padilla"). Part of the point was to help singers make a good effect, and the operas therefore remain singer-driven. The Donizetti revival that began in the 1950s was carried on the voices of star sopranos: Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills.

Radvanovsky, alternating in the role with Renee Fleming, fell right into that tradition on Friday night: After a slow start, she gave, in Acts 2 and 3, some of the best singing I've heard in a long time. She tends to undersell herself, projecting a coolness and technical polish that detract from the warmth of her characterizations. In Act 1, she was both reserved and -- I think through trying to rein her voice into a smooth legato -- flat in pitch.

But she opened right up in Act 2, and once she went into fifth gear and began delivering long runs of notes, blending fluidity and strength, there was nothing to do but fasten your seat belt and be glad you were along for the ride. It didn't hurt that Ruggero Raimondi, her partner in Act 2's blood-and-guts duet, was having such a wonderful night that it was hard to believe he had sounded dry and effortful at the opening a week before. Radvanovsky kept right on going through the last act, making the final aria, which is rather silly, at least a showpiece for something that was worth showing. Her voice has the ringing strength for this repertory, flowing in roulades from firm, bell-like top notes to a startlingly warm low, all with a sense of technical aplomb; the excitement she projects grows out of supreme competence. Cool she may be, but singing like this is all too rare these days.

"Lucrezia Borgia" could be called "opera noir," though its darkness is tempered by brilliant music in the best bel canto tradition. "Maria Padilla" is richer and more autumnal, though musically even deeper toned, marked with the sound of horns and powered by basses and cellos. Though neither is well known today, they are the two most successful of the five operas Donizetti wrote for La Scala; "Lucrezia," indeed, was long a repertory staple. Number for number, "Maria Padilla" is both richer and -- probably the reason it never caught on quite as much as the others -- subtler.

But Walker made it sing. His conducting -- a bit micromanaged, physically emphatic and sensitively anticipating every turn of the score -- showed how vital the conductor is to bringing across bel canto's flair. "Lucrezia" is filled with showy tunes as well, but conducting at WNO, Plácido Domingo, for all his best efforts, has a heavy touch; rather than setting your toes tapping, his music tended to bog down.

Walker's singers were younger, eager, respectable and not yet quite star caliber. They had a tremendous amount of singing to do, and they tackled it -- I use the word advisedly -- with determination. Leah Partridge, as Maria, also started stiffly but found her way to a lovely lyric sound, though every fiber of her body was tensed in bringing out her passage work. Jennifer Rivera, as her sister Ines, had a nice sound but was challenged by the amount of singing. The baritone Mark S. Doss, as the king who is secretly married to Maria, had a tightness and rasp to his sound and an uneven delivery, but also promise. His recovery after a brief flub in his third-act aria was telling; concentrating on getting back on track, he lost his self-consciousness and, in the last few phrases of the piece, delivered his best performance of the night. If he can find a way to get to that sound all the time, he could be someone to watch.

Justin Lavender, a later replacement for the tenor Bruce Ford, was physically well cast as Maria's father but not really up to the demands of the part. I would characterize him as one of those tight, small-voiced Rossini tenors, but saw in amazement that he is singing some of the jewels of the 19th-century spinto repertory in major European houses: Faust, Florestan, Don Jose. This is ridiculous over-pushing of a smaller voice; it is pretty much the rule these days, and as a result young tenors have a very short shelf life. I see the writing on the wall for Vittorio Grigolo in WNO's "Lucrezia," about whom I was excited on opening night, but who in Act 1 on Friday sounded so frayed it was hard to remember what I had liked so much. Grigolo has a gorgeous voice, but if he doesn't watch out, he may be no more than a footnote.

Lucrezia Borgia, with Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role, will be repeated Saturday and Monday at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Call 202-295-2400 or visit http://www.dc-opera.org.

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