I like to think of myself as a cultural aficionado – up for anything no matter the format. At least once. Maybe twice to make sure I give the format a chance before I dismiss it completely (nothing has been dismissed as of yet). But at this point in my life, I still find myself shocked at the number of things I haven’t done – or at least not done properly as an adult. After we finished watching Mozart in the Jungle, the Boy and I declared that we had to make it out to the symphony. We haven’t yet (we’ve been busy). But I remember going as a little girl with my grandmother (the one who just turned 99), and being given half an Altoid (my little girl tongue wasn’t able to handle that much peppermint) to suck on as we listened to the music. It was a really special thing for just the two of us, and we did it two or three times.
Which brings me to today’s post – I saw my first opera recently. I went to visit my other grandmother in upstate New York, and as we made plans, she told me that the Saturday I would be there was one of the Saturdays that she and her friends liked to go to the Opera – would I like to join them? And as the cultural aficionado that I am, unafraid to dislike something on the first try, I said yes. And so we went.
“But which city in upstate New York is big enough to have an opera company?” you ask. Well, the answer is none, and all of them. It turns out the performance we were attending was the HD Live Simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera. For ten years now, the Met has been streaming their world-class performances to 2000 movie screens in 70 countries around the world. Places that don’t have access to this unique cultural heritage can be exposed to the beauty of opera.
I wish I could say that this, my first opera was one of the greats – The Barber of Seville, Marriage of Figaro, Carmen, the Magic Flute, La Traviata – something that you could name and go, “Oh…I recognize that tune”, because there are so many of them where the music is ingrained in the wider culture. Instead, I saw Roberto Devereux, a show I’d never heard of before being told that’s what we’d see.
It is by Gaetano Donizetti, and is the simplified story of Queen Elizabeth I towards the end of her reign, and her infatuation with Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. She sent him to Ireland to quell a rebellion, but he did not succeed as she would have hoped, and is eventually tried and executed for treason. The opera also includes a romantic subplot between Devereux and Sara, the Countess of Nottingham – they had been lovers previously and while he was in Ireland she was forced to marry. He gives her a ring that was a gift from the queen, and she gives him a shawl that she has been embroidering. Her husband (who has seen her at work on the shawl) knows when he sees Devereux with it that the two are connected, and he uses his power to convince the queen to carry out the execution. The rest is drama about will Sara be able to save Devereux or won’t she (spoiler alert – he is the last person ever beheaded at the Tower of London), but it’s all appropriately dramatic.
The opera is carried by it’s main foursome, and they were all pretty terrific. But despite being named after a male character, the show is dominated by it’s leading ladies. Elīna Garanča plays Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham, and she is wonderful. She gets to be the woman in love, and the woman whose heart is broken in the way that we think of in opera, with her lover dying. She is excellent at conveying the pain in keeping secrets from the queen she loves, and from her husband. But above that, she is defiant of her queen in taking the favorite as her lover (though in secret), and of her husband (more forcefully when he confronts her about Devereux). She makes every effort to be the hero who saves the day, but is confounded at every turn. Her voice is lovely and heartbreaking.
Sondra Radvanovsky as Queen Elizabeth is a force of nature – she was also carrying out a personal quest this season at the Met to sing Donizetti’s three Tudor queens. Her Elizabeth is brutally powerful and decisive in front of the court, but when left with the man she desires, she is mostly kitten tenderness and longing for his love and affection. Her feelings of betrayal and at the end of the show deepest regret are telegraphed beautifully in her face. There’s a moment where Elizabeth removes her wig that seemed to me to have the same kind of emotional vulnerability that I experienced when I saw the same move happen on “How to Get Away with Murder” (essentially a night time soap opera). This performance was raw and riveting, and Radvanovsky drew your eye whenever she was on stage, and not just because of her costume.
Guys…the costumes. They were spectacular. If the simulcast is great for anything, it’s a love letter to the costumers whose work is put on more intimate display than it could possibly be in the Opera House. We get to see the close up details, the incredible handiwork. I wanted to touch all the fabrics, and see how heavy Elizabeth’s gowns really are (reports say 35 pounds – oof!).
So how was the show? Good. I enjoyed myself, and I think I’d like to try another opera – maybe even another MetHD performance before I pay money to see one at the Kennedy Center or similar. Something a little more familiar so that I am less likely to fall asleep for a couple minutes in the theater (it was dark! I’d just eaten lunch! I’m ashamed of myself!!!), and more likely to remain engaged for the entire performance. It won’t be tomorrow, but the Met has released their entire schedule of performances for the 2016-17 season, and I’m going to try to find one that fits my criteria and my schedule. And if you’ve never been to the opera before…maybe you should do the same. After all – $25 or so for a new cultural experience, and the possibility of popcorn is a small price to pay.
Details: Roberto Devereux ran March 24 – April 19, and streamed live on April 16.
Elektra streams 12:55pm on April 30, find it at a theater near you. Or prepare for next season.