Songs and Arias by Caccini, Scarlatti, Gluck, Durante, Verdi, Donizetti, Rossini, and Puccini. Sondra Radvanovsky, soprano; Anthony Manoli, piano. 8 p.m., Show One Productions. Koerner Hall, Toronto. Nov. 24, 2018.
From Bel Canto to Verismo starring soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, arguably the most eagerly awaited vocal recital of the 2018-19 season, took place last evening at Koerner Hall. Given this was her only Toronto appearance this season, there was a real sense of occasion. There was a real buzz, a festive air among the attendees in the pre-concert lobby that’s unmistakable.
The 1,135-seat Koerner Hall was completely sold out, even the two-level choir loft was packed. I spotted many familiar faces in the audience, the “usual suspects” of Toronto voice aficionados. There was also a large contingent of singers — I spotted soprano Joyce El-Khoury, baritone Jason Howard, tenor Andrew Haji and many more. COC General Director Alexander Neef was also in attendance.
The audience was not disappointed. They witnessed an evening of magnificent vocalism, with the soprano in top form, offering up lovely tone with plenty of chiaroscuro, from the softest pianissimi to wall-shaking high fortissimi with plenty of bite, not to mention everything in between, backed by extraordinary technical prowess and sure-fire theatricality. Yes, I think my ears were ringing for hours afterwards. Now that the American-born Radvanovsky is a dual citizen and lives just a stone’s throw from TO, we can claim her as our own Queen of Bel Canto, and an authentic Canadian prima donna.
When I interviewed her in anticipation of this recital, she explained the rationale behind putting the two disparate styles of Bel Canto and Verismo together on the same program: “I want to show that one was born of the other; Bel Canto is really “Baby Verismo,” especially with roles like Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. From Italian songs to Bellini to Verdi to Puccini, you can hear from the music the one thread that runs through it, and that’s the beautiful voice line. That’s what I want to show in this recital.”
Did she ever! It was a veritable masterclass of great singing. She explained that it’s a new program and asked for the audience’s indulgence for using the score in the songs. But she hardly needed it – the score was there as a security blanket. One was struck by her vivid expressions, particularly in Rossini’s La regatta veneziana. I first heard these nearly fifty years ago, sung by the great Renata Tebaldi. I admit I’m a loyal Tebaldiani, but Radvanovsky’s rendition is more convincing, more vivid and nuanced in her facial expressions, hand gestures and body language. No text needed!
With the arias, the soprano was on more familiar ground. She opened with Medora’s “Non so le tetre immagini” from the rarely staged Il Corsaro, showing off her incredible legato, amazing breath-line and formidable high piani, despite those treacherous and sudden near two-octaves leaps. It was followed by a stunning Elisabetta’s “L’amor suo mi fe’beata” from Roberto Devereux, which she sang in a memorable run at the COC many of us saw four years ago. Here, she sang a penetrating final high E-flat. Maybe it was just my imagination, but I felt the vibrations on the auditorium floor.
Next up was two very interesting Puccini songs, which the composer recycled later into his operas. “Sole e amore” with its gentle melody was recycled into the quartet in Act 3 La bohème. Puccini also recycled “E l’uccellino” into another one of his operas, but on the spur of the moment I can’t recall which one. In any case, Radvanovsky invested both pieces with ravishing tone and gentle lyricism. The last of the Puccini was the great monologue “Sola, perduta abbandonata” from Manon Lescaut, sung alternately with great dramatic flourish and pathos by the soprano.
The final piece in the formal program was something totally new for Radvanovsky – the Sleepwalking Scene from Verdi’s Macbeth. What can I say except that we look forward to hearing her sing this role on stage, which I understand is coming in the next few seasons. She infused this great scena with a kaleidoscope of tone colours and dramatic urgency, capped off at the end with a divine pianissimo high D-flat, while walking off stage. Well, that brought the house down.
It’s a given that with the end of the formal program there would be endless ovations – the audience simply wouldn’t let her go. For encores, she started with “Che il bel sogno di Doretta” from La rondine, complete with a roof-rattling high C to go with exquisitely hushed B-flats. Then she did full justice to “Ebben ne andro lontana” from La Wally, a true diva’s star turn of an aria. She was called back again and again. Radvanovsky rewarded the crowd with the warhorse “Pace, pace mio Dio” from Forza. I don’t know if Radvanovsky has ever sung Leonora on stage, but it will be a real treat! She held onto the final high B for what seemed like an eternity — until the music stopped.
By then, the full house was delirious. After a full evening of singing the big guns, she gave one last encore — a big surprise, “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. I was half expecting a favourite of hers, “Beneath the Lights of Home” originally sung by Deanna Durbin. But instead, we got a spectacularly sung “Over the Rainbow.” Through it all, Anthony Manoli could not have been a more supportive and sympathetic pianist. They have been collaborating for many years, and it shows. You can just tell the two of them performed as one.
All told, it was one of the most satisfying recitals I’ve seen in recent years. We are very lucky to have Sondra Radvanovsky in our midst. With the COC as her “home theatre,” we can expect great things to come from her in the next few seasons. Stay tuned!