Sondra Radvanovsky’s recital as part of Opera Philadelphia’s O17 Festival was a spectacular event. That may seem like an oxymoron to some readers, who expect singer/pianist recitals to be intimate communions. She is a tall, majestic-looking woman with a huge voice.
Here she entered what was, for her, the unfamiliar territory of small-scaled personal communication, including her first songs in the German language.
Radvanovsky trained entirely in this country. After winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1995, she worked in the company’s Young Artist Development Program and eventually progressed to major roles. Now, at age 48, she’s an established international star who sang all three queens in Donizetti’s Tudor opera trilogy, and she opens the Metropolitan Opera’s 2017/18 season in a new production of Bellini’s Norma.
To engage her for this festival is a coup on the part of Opera Philadelphia, and she did not disappoint. Radvanovsky elected not to focus on opera, including only one aria in a 17-song program. Rather, she devoted herself to an exploration of delicate lieder and made intelligent choices of numbers that connected with her life. For example, Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs celebrated her American roots and her admiration for Leontyne Price, who premiered those songs in 1953. And Franz Liszt’s French-language settings of Victor Hugo poems were included a bow to Canada, where Radvanovsky just acquired dual citizenship because her husband is from that nation.
She chose two songs by Vincenzo Bellini as a reminder to the audience that she’s in rehearsals for his grand opera, Norma. “La ricordanza” has the same plaintive melody which Bellini later used for the famous “Qui la voce” in his opera Puritani. Then she sang three lied by Richard Strauss that are staples for German singers.
She has excellent control of her large voice, scaling it down appropriately to express her texts. When she sang Liszt’s song saying “If I were God I’d want a kiss from you,” she floated a gorgeous pianissimo D-flat and E-flat; and her ending of Liszt’s “Oh quand je dors” was a lovely soft G-sharp.
She does have a much bigger sound than what one usually hears in this material, which was thrilling to hear, yet some edginess crept into her climactic notes. Masters of this material, like Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Ian Bostridge, used more intimate projection, with a conversational approach.
I’ve seen and heard big dramatic sopranos of the past cope with this repertoire; Zinka Milanov sang florid Handel and Birgit Nilsson did a lovely “Wien, Wien, du allein” but this never was their metier. Let’s see if Radvanovsky devotes much of her future time to it. After all, she’s in great demand for her operatic heroines.
Radvanovsky made a striking appearance in a flowing blue gown for the first half and emerald for the second, with stunning matching necklaces. Her manner was cordial and casual, endearing herself to the audience. Anthony Manoli was her outstanding pianist.
Her closing number on the program was the aria “La mamma morta” from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. Even though she’s just learning that role, and relied on a score on a music stand, she seemed thoroughly at home as she belted its melodramatic lyrics. Two more arias were sung as encores — “The Song to the Moon” from Dvorak’s Rusalka and “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s Tosca — and Radvanovsky gave them extremely flamboyant interpretations. I can’t wait to see her in these roles, hopefully in Philadelphia. Both the singer and the opera company are hoping for an ongoing relationship.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.
Sondra Radvanovsky performed on September 17, 2017, presented by Opera Philadelphia at the Perelman Theater of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts – 300 South Broad Street in Philadelphia, PA. Tickets for other O17 Festival events may be purchased online.