Wasn’t it fortunate that Friedrich Schiller, the renowned German poet and play-right, decided to “play around” with history in his play “Maria Stuart” on which the libretto for Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda is based! Had he not dreamt up a meeting between the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and the Protestant Elisabeth I, (the two actually never met,) we would not have the exciting confrontation scene in Act 1 of Donizetti’s opera. It certainly is one of the highlights of this bel canto offering, and telegraphs the plots and counter-plots that were part of actual history.
And is it not fortunate that we currently have a whole series of spectacular bel canto voices to expose us to that era of opera creation. Was it a temporary paucity of such singers plus the lack of enthusiasm for the genre that the Metropolitan never offered this Tragedie Lirica before? Donizetti (1797-1848) after battling Italy’s usual censors, saw it presented at La Scala in 1835, but it premiered at the Met only a scant few weeks ago, as the New-years-Eve feature greeting 2013.
It has not been ignored in Europe. I saw/heard it in Rome many years ago with the fabulous Monserrat Caballe. One has to wonder why it never was presented at the Met during the Sutherland/Sills/Caballe era, although they evidently performed it fairly frequently elsewhere. Maybe it was that bel canto then was considered going backwards in opera evolution, with the stiffness of acting and the oompapah and rum-te-tum-tetum silliness and constant repetitiveness of some bel canto opera scores.
I confess to harboring a bit of that prejudice, so I was most pleasantly surprised at this version of Maria Stuarda, as I also found myself admiring the never-at-the-Met-before Anna Bolena last season.
It may well be that the producer/director David McVicar, the set and costume designer, John Macfarlane and the conductor Maurizio Benini, zero in on the fully believable human aspects of the presentation. Instead of merely giving us “canary fancying and prettily warbling” that still allows bel canto to stand on its own, as McVicar explained, he and the company take it seriously and treat it intelligently. The result is amazingly effective.
Although the set is stark, the costuming is elaborate and correct for the period. So instead of destroying the accepted vision of an opera (as the outlandish Tosca and La Traviata of past seasons managed to do,) we are given a fresh, somewhat minimalistic, modern approach that is totally acceptable and enjoyable.
It gave a splendid platform for the super-talented cast. Joyce DiDonato, the American mezzo-soprano made a vocally thrilling Maria, especially in the taxing pianissimo sections of her confessing scenes in the second act. Her acting was equally as powerful when she defiantly calls Elisabeth a bastard of the Boleyn whore early on, as in portraying the effects of 18 years of incarceration in Act 2. She achieves this via a tremor of the head and rosary-clasping hands. It is incredible that her concentration on that efficacious bit of business continues while delivering absolutely perfection vocally. Brava!
The South-African soprano, Elza van den Heever, who was making her Met debut in this role, is type cast and makes full use of this. Her much publicized willingness to shave her head to underscore the authenticity of Elisabeth’s famed baldness under the opulent wigs, stood her in good stead. She admitted in an interview that she took her acting cues from the various Bette Davis movie portrayals of the Virgin Queen. Elisabetta’s “masculine stomping around” obviously is McVicar’s way to set her off from the more sophisticated Maria, thrice-married, a mother, far more attractive to any member of any court. Was he also aiming to show that she was the “Virgin Queen” because she may have been gay?
The fact that ven den Heever is extraordinarily tall and DiDonato happens to be diminutive, made the overpowering of the doomed Maria a foregone conclusion. But it was ven den Heever’s voice that made this an auspicious debut. She is a fine addition to the Met roster.
Matthew Polenzani, from Illinois, has sung over 250 performances at the Met. This one, as the ineffective Lord Leicester, from this ever-dependable tenor, was definitely effective.
The Canadian baritone, Joshua Hopkins, portrayed Cecil, the cruel advisor who persuades the somewhat hesitant Elisabeth that Maria is a constant threat to her and the Protestant status of the kingdom. A powerful baritone, he seeks his victim’s beheading with splendid sonority.
Matthew Rose, the British bass gave the role of Maria’s sympathetic jailor, Talbot, tremendous dignity. He is a basso to take as seriously as the role itself. All around a wonderful performance!
And then there was the chorus -- truly terrific -- as was the Met’s world-class orchestra that under Maurizio Benini’s informed conducting found the very best Donnizetti has to offer. In other words, this was a bel canto triumph.
The audience in the movie theater I attended was energized to the point that many applauded almost every aria and vocal ensemble.
They also seemed to appreciate the lively intermission interviews, this time hosted graciously by Deborah Voigt.
So now we have been offered the second of Donizetti’s trilogy of British queens. We are promised the third – Roberto Devereux – in the future. I definitely look forward to that.
I urge you to attend the Encore of Maria Stuarda at 6:30 PM, on Wednesday, February 6th, at the WHITE PLAINS CITY CENTER 15: CINEMA DE LUX or NEW ROCHELLE –REGAL NEW ROC CITY 18.
Here are some impressions from a few of your Westchester neighbors :
Jane Gutman of Scarsdale thought Joyce DiDonato gave “ a wonderfully touching, modulated performance,” and said “all in all, I enjoyed the opera immensely.” But she did not care for the direction that had Elza van den Heever’s Elisabetta “stomp around the stage as some pirate-like man.” Addressing the costumes, she appreciated that they were correct for the period, found herself dazzled by the choice of white for the opening scene, but thought Elisabetta’s later silver gown “ungainly. Costume designers should remember that singers have to be able to move. In this one it seemed the Queen was unable to bend.”
Claire Schwartz of Yonkers “Loved it -- and I don’t say that easily!” A well-informed, seasoned opera-buff who still attends many performances at the actual house, she found this performance “mesmerizing, especially in the last scene.” Grateful for the existence of the Movie HDs, she explained that she takes advantage of them when she considers the specific opera may not be of the caliber she usually finds worthy of the inconvenience and higher price in NY.
Jack Altbush of Rye Brook thought every member of the ensemble “gave a wonderful performance.” He singled out DiDonato as especially deserving of praise. A fully informed opera-buff, he took exception to the hampering heavy costuming, and expressed that initially the many political conflicts and conspiracies are not clear. (We decided that was Schiller’s fault or that of the opera’s precociously-talented17-year-old librettist, Giuseppe Bardari.) Mr. Altbush was gratified “that everything became crystal clear in the remarkable 2nd Act.”
Helga Weissburger of Greenburgh said she had nothing negative to remark about the entire production. “I was so touched by DiDonato’s amazing performance. How did she manage that shaking of the hands and head so consistently?” Mrs. Weissburger praised all the voices as well as the chorus. Continuing, she explained that, contrary to people who take issue with the Met’s recent use of minimal settings, she sees nothing wrong with that. In this instance she appreciated the elaborate costumes to offset the starkness of the sets.
A friend who was in the other theater at White Plains City Center 15, told me that during the last scene of the opera, she had to supply tissues to the ladies at her right and left, and that she found herself a bit teary as well. (That’s a mark of a successful tragic opera – and I believe a rarity for usually so pro-forma bel canto that often manages to trivialize the drama.)