Hopkins, Joshua


Maria StuardaGaetano Donizetti - Maria Stuarda

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2013 | Maurizio Benini, David McVicar, Joyce DiDonato, Elza van den Heever, Matthew Polenzani, Joshua Hopkins, Matthew Rose | The Met Live in HD - January 19th 2013

I take it all back. Well, maybe not all of it. Musically and dramatically, I think Anna Bolena - done right - is certainly still the strongest and most convincing work in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy, but David McVicar’s new production of Maria Stuarda - the second opera in of the three that he is directing for the Metropolitan Opera following last season’s Anna Bolena - has persuaded me that the work is more than just a romantic love-triangle bel canto piece in period costume and a historical setting, and it’s more than just an opportunity for a mezzo-soprano/soprano coloratura firework display between the two duelling divas playing the Queens.

The historical relevance of the rivalry between the Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots - the Tudor descendant - and Queen Elizabeth - whose legitimacy is questionable after the execution of her mother Anne Boleyn - is an important one, but their background also determines the character of each of the women to a large extent. This is indeed as much about two women as it is about two Queens, two women who have to live up to the weight and responsibility of history and their position, but they are not precluded from normal human feelings and reactions of pride, love and jealousy.

Based on a drama by Friedrich Schiller, the human drama in Maria Stuarda then hinges on a fictitious and fractious encounter between two women who in reality may have had a tense relationship, but never actually met in real-life. The imagined meeting at Fotheringhay Castle, where Mary Stuart was imprisoned, could realistically have happened - Elizabeth once passing quite close to the place while Mary was there - but although invented, the encounter is nonetheless a valid dramatic device that provides an opportunity and a release and expression of the very real rivalry and conflict that exists between the two women and their Protestant and Catholic followers.

Dramatic licence then and an invented love-triangle situation involving Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, may provide the context for those expressions to be brought together and for the respective personalities of the women - and their enmity for each other - to be aired, but where opera excels is in the emotional heightening of that reality through the music and the singing. It’s Donizetti’s score - conventional though it is in places - that gives further depth and personality to the characters, and hint at other aspects that lie beyond the remit of history books. Opera is good at this and Donizetti proves to be capable of raising the situation to the necessary heights in Maria Stuarda. The opera however still needs to be convincingly staged and sung, and bel canto opera presents considerable challenges for the director and the cast in that respect.

Working with an unfamiliar style of opera that has those special demands, David McVicar again - as with the earlier Anna Bolena - didn’t attempt anything too radical, keeping the work in period and refraining from introducing any concepts that aren’t evident in the libretto. This has some disadvantages - the opera, like most bel canto opera, tends to be rather static and devoid of any real action - but McVicar recognises that the strength and the real dramatic content of the work lies in the historical situation and that its import is best brought out by the singing. In fact, Maria Stuarda relies principally on a couple of key pieces - the famous confrontation scene at the end of Act I where the Queens spit insults at each other (’vil bastarda’), and the Act II scenes and arias leading up to Mary’s execution. McVicar’s handling of these vital scenes was flawless, the staging and lighting having the necessary impact that was almost spine-tingling.

That doesn’t come about by chance however, nor does the full impact come across in isolation from the rest of the work. The build-up to the scenes and the character exploration that leads up to them is just as important and that aspect wasn’t neglected by McVicar, or by set and costume designer John MacFarlane either. The effort put into this was perhaps most evident in the depiction of Elizabeth, in the choice of costumes and wigs, in the almost masculine swagger and in the actual physical size of Elza ven den Heever dominating over the much smaller Joyce DiDonato, but the little details that show her weaknesses and vulnerabilities also came across in movements and subtle moments of reflection that are tied closely to the music. If the attention given towards ven den Heever’s Elizabeth (and her dedication at going so far as to shave off her hair in order to make that famous bewigged look all the more convincing) was more evidently worked upon, the characterisation of Mary by McVicar, and of course by Joyce DiDonato, as one of an intense sincerity of purpose that tips over into barely controlled passion, is just as important to strike the necessary contrast in personality, background and character.

That contrast between the women is of course also explored in the blistering arias and the explosive duet that make the work famous (leading to at least one notorious real-life kicking and punching match between the original two leading ladies in the opposing roles), but in the case of this production, the match is never an equal one - at least in terms of singing. It’s not left up to two leading divas of competing equal ability to determine between them who is the most fiery, but it’s one predetermined by the casting and the direction choices. There’s really no contest or doubt about where the sympathies lie here, and no attempt to strike a balance - although Elizabeth is, as mentioned earlier, strikingly characterised in a way that is wonderfully human and real. Elza ven den Heever plays and sings the part well, but she’s no match for the power of Joyce DiDonato’s portrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Bel canto leading roles often demand a singer of extraordinary ability, needing technique as well as personality and a necessary degree of acting ability, and DiDonato proved here that she is one of the best mezzo-sopranos in the world in that respect. This was a thoughtful, considered and committed performance, one that demonstrates understanding of her character and finds a manner to express Mary’s inner qualities though the weight and timing of delivery, through the coloratura and through the very tone and timbre of the voice itself. If the full impact is felt at the close of the opera - like Anna Bolena ending with another flash of red, but one her that is historically documented as Mary’s choice of red martyrdom dress - it’s mainly due to DiDonato’s ability to make it utterly and chillingly real.

It’s evidence, if any further evidence is needed, that such bel canto operas can only work - and have only ever been successfully revived - when there is an artist of sufficient stature, technique and ability to carry them. DiDonato is clearly up there. The jewel however requires a setting to allow it to shine, and there were no elements at all here to tarnish the lustre of DiDonato in any way. Matthew Polenzani’s Leicester was adequately sung. It wasn’t a role best-suited to Polenzani, and I’ve seen him perform much better than this - but as it is written, Leicester’s part in the love-triangle never seems the most convincing aspect of the work, or the real motivation for the rivalry between the two queens, merely a pretext to draw them together. Joshua Hopkins as Cecil and Matthew Rose as Talbot also dutifully and more than adequately filled their roles in the drama, but everything that counted in making this production come together depended on Joyce DiDonato, and more than anything else, it was her performance that made this an impressive and even unforgettable Maria Stuarda.

TurandotGiacomo Puccini - Turandot

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2009 | Andris Nelsons, Franco Zeffirelli, Maria Guleghina, Marcello Giordani, Marina Poplavskaya, Samuel Ramey, Charles Anthony, Joshua Hopkins, Tony Stevenson, Eduardo Valdes | Decca

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that Turandot is an underrated opera, but its most famous aria, ‘Nessun Dorma’, has tended to overshadow the other qualities that the work has to offer. Puccini’s final opera (the last scene completed after his death by Franco Alfano) also has more to it than a superficial look at the fairy-tale nature of the story – based on a work by the 18th century Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi – might suggest, or indeed the exotic Oriental inflections of the opera’s music score. Turandot actually contains some of Puccini’s finest musical compositions, the composer bringing his considerable talent to bear on the overall structure and arrangement, while also finding – as he always does – beautiful melodies that express a depth of emotion and character that one might not expect to find in the piece.

There’s a human heart in the story of a cruel princess, Turandot, who demands that anyone seeking her hand in marriage must first give the answer to three riddles that she sets – and where there’s a human heart, few are as expressive as Giacomo Puccini. Despite the consequence of failure being beheading, many noble princes have tried and failed to answer the riddles set by Turandot, and the deaths of so many have cast a long and bloody stain on the Emperor’s reign and despair on the people of his kingdom. An unknown prince however is determined to take his chance, despite the dangers, despite the warnings from the royal court, and despite the pleas of those closest to him, one of whom is Liu, a slave girl who is in love with him.

Puccini sets up the nature of this situation beautifully in Act 1, capturing the full range of the conflicting sentiments of each of the main players, and if the actual staging of the riddle contest in Act 2 is less than perfectly arranged, it’s an occasion for a terrific duel of singing voices between the soprano and the tenor. Although it seems like we have to wait until Act 3 to fully understand what is at stake (and get Nessun Dorma), there are nonetheless hints to the nature of the characters and the conflicting issues between them in the answers to the riddles. It’s hope that lies within Calef, but it is due to die at dawn, his answers to the riddles having failed to melt the burning ice of Turandot, and it’s only through the blood of Liu that the situation is resolved and the true nature of love is revealed. If this doesn’t quite add up to full character development, the beauty of Puccini’s musical arrangements makes up the difference. The Oriental touches are not merely pastiche either – Puccini seems to understand the nature of this foreign and discordant music and the sentiments that lie within it, and he meaningfully and skilfully weaves it into his score to great effect.

Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish production for The Met could also be accused of extravagance, kitsch and overstatement, but in reality it’s perfectly in keeping with the tone and the nature of Puccini’s drama. Zeffirelli’s huge sets capture the grandness of the occasion, the decadence of the royal court and the magical qualities of the fairy-tale nature of the subject, but it also pays attention to the details in the costume design, as well as in the position of the characters within the sets and in relation to one another. Those qualities are also borne out in the performance of the Metropolitan Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons, who grasp the full force and dymanic of this extraordinary opera, and in the singing performances from a fine cast. Guleghina and Giordani play well together and rise to the exceptional demands of their roles, but it’s Marina Poplavskaya who positively shines as Liu. Poplavskaya can sometimes be a little inconsistent and out of her depth in certain roles, but she has a great emotional quality in her voice and it comes through here brilliantly. In every respect this production is just magnificent – there’s no other word for it.

The Blu-ray release from Decca has an unfortunate fault with the English subtitles – at least on the initial batch of copies. English subtitles are a full 37 seconds out of sync with the voices, though they seem fine on the other languages (I got by on French). The subs work fine if you access Act 3 directly from the chapter menu (if you want to get to Nessun Dorma, for example), but they cannot be made to synchronise for any of the other acts through this method. It’s a pity, because in all other respects, this is a superb High Definition presentation of the Met’s 2009 Live in HD recording that brings out the full colourful glory of Zeffirelli’s production, and packs a punch on the HD sound mixes. The recording keeps the same format as the HD Live broadcasts, introduced here by Patricia Racette, who also conducts interviews with Maria Guleghina, Marcello Giordani, and Charles Anthony during the interval between Act 2 and 3.