At the recent Sondra Radvanovsky concert at Koerner Hall, my former boss at Classical 96 FM joked that I had discovered the soprano who is now considered the belle of the opera world. That is not far from the truth in terms of Toronto. He remembered when I came back from Spoleto Festival USA in 2000, and in my review, raved about a young singer who had been very impressive, both in vocal and acting skills, in the title role of Verdi’s Luisa Miller. Two years later, I extolled her prowess in Verdi’s La traviata at Santa Fe. Admittedly, I do take pride in the fact that I alerted Classical 96 listeners to the fact that Radvanovsky was on the road to greatness and attention must be paid.
My next encounter was one of those weird coincidences. The year after Santa Fe, I got a press release announcing that St. Michael’s Choir School would be giving a special concert at Toronto’s historic St. Anne’s Anglican Church with guest soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. I was totally mystified about the how and the why behind this rising star American soprano and, (in what must be), her first Toronto appearance. It was not exactly a highly visible debut. Nonetheless, I kept badgering everyone I knew to get themselves to St. Anne’s (historic because of its Group of Seven murals). I wanted my fellow opera lovers to experience this great new voice.
For the life of me, I can’t remember the repertoire (it was either Christmas or Easter), but I certainly recall that Radvanovsky and the boys were glorious. The last part of the concert was a sing-along of some sort and I was instantly aware of the fine robust voice coming from the row behind me. When I complimented the gentleman on his singing at the end of the concert, he turned out to be Duncan Lear, Radvanovsky’s husband/manager, and a former St. Michael’s chorister himself. His wife was performing with the choir as a return favour to the St. Mike’s choirmaster who had arranged the music for their wedding. (It was the great Canadian tenor Michael Schade, a former St. Mike’s boy soprano, and a close friend of Lear’s, who had engineered the meeting between the two).
And so began an acquaintance with Radvanovsky and Lear. I attended operas in New York and Chicago when Radvanovsky appeared in those cities, and would meet with the couple for a late dinner after. In fact, it was after a stunning Il trovatore in Chicago that I broached the subject of Radvanovsky and bel canto. I thought she’d be a natural. It was on her list, she remarked, but way into the future. And now here she is this season performing the three queens in Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy at the Met to great acclaim. I’d like to think I was a prophet in my own time. I just knew that Radvanovsky had the big spinto voice and the coloratura skills that those operas were written for. (Incidentally, an interview I did with Radvanovsky, with Lear present, was probably the first she gave in Canada. The meeting took place at the Windsor Arms Hotel tearoom, and I vividly remember this encounter because Radvanovsky was bubbling over with joy. That very day she had just received her Canadian landed immigrant status.)
What the Koerner Hall concert demonstrated was that the very attributes I first noticed in the prima donna (we can call her that now) have flowered to perfection. At 46, Radvanovsky is clearly at the peak of her game. The singer did one more than the de rigueur three-language concert repertoire. She performed in Italian, French, German and English in songs and arias crafted by composers Vivaldi, Bellini, Richard Strauss, Liszt, Barber and Giordano. Encores were arias from Rusalka, La forza del destino and Gianni Schicchi, as well as the song Beneath the Lights of Home (the latter a favourite of her father’s). It was a concert designed to show off Radvanovsky’s impressive vocal range and consummate technical and interpretive skills. The least part was Barber’s Hermit Songs, not because they weren’t well sung, but because they seemed bland and constrained by not allowing her magnificent voice to soar. The concert was graced by Anthony Manoli, Radvanovsky’s very accomplished accompanist and coach of twenty years. He was completely sympathetic to her tempi, and like glove to hand, they were a perfect fit, piano to voice.
The first thing one notices about Radvanovsky is her unbelievable control. She loves to take her voice back to sotto voce and then burst forth in a wondrous cannonade of sound. She is a master of vocal manipulation, and revels at taking tempi at an extra slow gait. The smoothness of her legato is brilliant, and one is never aware of when she breathes. The notes pouring out of her are a stream of unbroken liquid gold. The reason she excels at bel canto is because she has what I call the necessary ingredients – a growly bottom, lyrical middle, and thrilling top. And speaking of the top, Radvanovsky can take her upper notes to the stratosphere, but it is still a sweet sound, just this side of shrill. True bel canto singers have to induce goose bumps in the listener, and Radvanovsky certainly does. In latter years, the bel canto repertoire has been coopted by what I call the “chirpers” or lighter-voiced, bird-like coloratura sopranos. Radvanovsky brings back the heaviness one craves – a substantive voice able to attack with blood and guts force, but never losing sight of either the precision of her formidable coloratura placement, or the clear presentation of the repertoire’s dreamy, floating fragility. Her honey-coated, woodsy voice is not beautiful, but rather full-bodied, penetrating and insistent, and that is what makes her performances so dynamic and exciting.
The folksy Radvanovsky on stage, breaking concert tradition by chatting away about the songs, is the same unpretentious Midwest girl she is in life. One story she told is a classic. She described how conductor James Levine introduced her to her idol Leontyne Price by saying, “Leontyne, meet Sondra, the new you.” Apparently the legendary soprano quipped back, “Don’t be the new me, be the one and only new you”. And the supremely talented Radvanovsky is certainly that, her distinctive voice now commanding attention in opera houses around the world.
Sondra Radvanovsky, soprano, and Anthony Manoli, pianist, presented by Show One Productions, Koerner Hall, Dec. 4, 2015.