DiDonato, Joyce


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.

ComteOryGioachino Rossini - Le Comte Ory

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Juan Diego Flórez, Michele Pertusi, Joyce DiDonato, Stéphane Degout, Diana Damrau, Susanne Resmark, Monica Yunus | The Met: Live in HD - April 9, 2011

The big selling point of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s 2010/11 season has of course been the start of their new Ring cycle, the season opening with a technically impressive set and some wonderful singing for Wagner’s Das Rheingold, and it is due to end the season and prove the worth of its Ring cycle with the second instalment of the tetralogy Die Walküre later in the month. In between however, while there have been many highlights among the varied productions broadcast around the world live in HD, it’s undoubtedly been the bel canto operas that have stood out like sparkling little gems amidst the rather more solid fare of Boris Godunov, Don Carlo and Iphigénie en Tauride during the Met’s current season.

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Lucia de Lammermoor where however revivals of successful Met productions, with Anna Netrebko and Nathalie Dessay slipping almost effortlessly into roles that they can be relied upon to perform exceptionally well, but the challenges of producing Le Comte Ory by Rossini, the father of bel canto, are rather different. One of the final operas composed by Rossini in France, a year before he prematurely retired from opera writing in 1829, Le Comte Ory features some of the composer’s most challenging singing roles in a rather more sophisticated composition that would draw on arrangements from some of his earlier Italian operas. Less well-known than the more famous Rossini works, it’s not so much then that Le Comte Ory is a lesser work by any means, but rather that it’s only recently that singers of sufficient ability have been trained to tackle the formidable challenges that Le Comte Ory – and indeed many other bel canto operas that are currently undergoing revival – present.

We’re talking evidently of Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, one of a very few tenors who can consistently hit and hold the High Cs and Ds littered throughout the minefields of operas like La Fille du Regiment and Le Comte Ory to catch out and expose tenors who are rather less nimble and lacking in the kind of stamina they demand. Receiving its first performance ever at the Met for these reasons, it is indeed difficult to imagine anyone else but Juan Diego Flórez being able to carry off the role of the Count off with any conviction. It’s not however just a matter of being able to find a lead tenor who can meets the demands of the opera, Le Comte Ory also presents challenging roles for soprano and mezzo-soprano, and with Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato being drafted in to form a remarkable trio, the Met can justifiably make excuses for waiting so long to be able to assemble a worthy cast for Rossini’s late masterpiece.

ComteOry

Even after these successful performances, whether the opera is a masterpiece or not is however still open to question. The plot of the comic opera, based on a one-act 1816 vaudeville written by Eugène Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson – who also produced the libretto for the opera – is not the most sophisticated. The story is little more than a Carry-on affair revolving around the activities of a notorious libertine who dons disguises in order to seduce as many of the women of the land as possible while their husbands are away fighting in the Crusades. In Act 1, wearing a long black flowing beard, he passes himself off as a wise hermit who dispenses advice to the women folk in exchange for offerings and one-on-one “consultations”. His ultimate aim is to bed the beautiful Countess Adèle, sister of the Count of Formoutiers, but he has a rival in the form of his own page, Isolier. His disguise rumbled by his own tutor, Ory regroups his forces and plans another assault on the women of the castle by disguising himself and his big bearded men as nuns on a pilgrimage.

The fact that Le Comte Ory is a comedy is in itself no reason why the opera can’t be great and reveal deeper truths about men, women, love and lust – Mozart’s operas with Da Ponte stand as testament to the deeper human urges and the tragic impulses that lie beneath them, expressed both through the music and the subtleties of the libretto. Le Comte Ory isn’t on the same level musically or in the libretto, but it is certainly a little more musically sophisticated than most other bel canto operas, and if the libretto doesn’t reveal any great truths or insights, the quality of the singing does at least raise it to another level. Flórez, unsurprisingly, is dazzling as the Count – even despite being up all the night previous to this performance and taking to the stage only a half hour after assisting his wife give birth – playing with verve and perfect comic timing, making it all look effortless yet consistently hitting all the high notes with not so much as a flutter or waver in tone. Diana Damrau was even more impressive as Adèle – her singing role equally if not even more challenging than that of the Count – adding colouratura and displaying impeccable legato in a performance that was not only technically flawless, but accompanied by fine, entertaining comic acting.

Despite having wonderfully written singing roles to demonstrate the exceptional singing ability and technique, the real test of the opera and its true brilliance is found however in the interaction of the singers, and in this respect, Flórez, Damrau and DiDonato formed a delightful team that fully justified the Met’s efforts to bring them together in this way. In this particular opera that close interaction is tested to its limit in a three-in-a-bed ménage-a-trois romp in Act II that not only lived up to the sauciness that was promised in the advance publicity for the opera – the scene exploiting the fact that DiDonato was in a trouser-role – but was as expertly orchestrated and choreographed as anything out of The Marriage of Figaro’s most complex mistaken identity denouements, with five to ten minutes of the most dazzlingly brilliant singing and entertainment delivered between the trio in the most tricky of acting situations. Simply stunning.

ComteOry

The stars all made their big impression then, but elsewhere they were well supported by a fine all-round production. Even though he explained the rationale behind the reduced scale of the production during his between act interview on the HD broadcast, I’m still not entirely clear why Bartlett Sher chose to stage the opera as a period opera staging-within-a-staging. It certainly put a little necessary comic distance between the theatricality of the old-style farce drama, but was also effective in allowing the performance to flow without long scene-change interruptions, which was ultimately to the benefit of the piece. The conducting of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Chorus by Maurizio Benini similarly played to the strengths of the opera’s fast-paced rhythms, and there was fine singing and performances also by Susanne Resmark as Dame Ragonde, the castle stewardess, and Michele Pertusi as the tutor.