BWW Interview: Tenor Matthew Polenzani – Boy Toy of the Tudor Queens

Richard Sasanow

Broadway World

Tenor Matthew Polenzani--he of the refined singing, elegant deportment and serious nature--is having a great season at the Met, with major roles in a pair of new productions."

First, he was Nadir, whose love for the priestess Leila (Diana Damrau) tempts her to give up her vows in Bizet’s LES PECHEURS DE PERLES (THE PEARL FISHERS). Now he’s working his mojo on no less than Elisabetta (Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen of England), in the new production of Donizetti’s ROBERTO DEVEREUX at the Met, premiering March 24. This is the third installment of the so-called Tudor Trilogy being performed this season by soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Elizabeth I in this opera, plus Ann Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots.

“He was Elisabetta’s boy toy–she liked fooling around with him but wasn’t about to make him king,” says the tenor. She probably made the right decision, he thinks: “Frankly, I don’t think Devereux was that swift a guy. He wasn’t an idiot–but he certainly lacked some common sense.” You’d never say that about Polenzani himself. At 47, he’s hardly a boy toy, though he looks dashing these days in his homegrown goatee. More than that: The singer, who was born near Chicago and once planned to be a music teacher, has a head on his shoulders about his career and life in general.

“Chivalrous, open-handed, cocksure and impulsive”

According to the British historian AN Wilson, who wrote a recent book on Elizabethan England, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, arrived at Elizabeth I’s court in his 20s, “every inch the gallant young aristocrat – chivalrous, open-handed, cocksure and impulsive.” Wilson says that Elizabeth, who was old enough to be his grandmother, “warmed to his charm and they danced and played cards together through the night.” (Talk about euphemisms!)

In 1939, when Hollywood took on the tale of the aging Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, who was half her age, it became “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, the proverbial swashbuckler (who had insisted on having his character added to the title of what was supposed to be “Elizabeth the Queen,” after a Broadway hit by Maxwell Anderson).

Historical fiction–not a documentary

Polenzani has never seen the movie–or any production of the opera, for that matter. So how does he approach an historical role like this? (This is not his first turn at the Elizabethan rodeo: In 2012, he was Leicester, the historical stepfather of Devereux, in MARIA STUARDA at the Met, the tale of a totally fictitious showdown between Mary Queen of Scots and, you guessed it, Elizabeth I, which cast him as part of a, again, fictitious love triangle between the two queens.)

“I did read a lot about Devereux and watched the HBO miniseries with Helen Mirren as the queen (Hugh Dancy was Devereux), to see what people were like or, at least, a vision of what they were like,” says Polenzani. “Certainly, we have to remember that this is historical fiction. It’s accurate…up to a point, but it’s not a documentary: It’s a story. We play with what we’ve been given.”

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Photo by Ken Howard