Maria Stuarda


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.

MariaStuardaGaetano Donizetti – Maria Stuarda

Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 2010 | Fabrizio Maria Carminati, Denis Krief, Fiorenza Cedolins, Sonia Ganassi, José Bros, Mirco Palazzi | Unitel Classica - C-Major

One might expect a certain amount of historical detail and political intrigue in an opera about the English crown during the turbulent Tudor era but, based on a play by Friedrich Schiller, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, like many of his bel canto historical works, keeps the plot and the psychology relatively simple, relating to it more on a romantic than a political level. Here, the political element is practically non-existent, the rivalry that lies between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth being for the affections of the Earl of Leicester, and the dominant tone – powerfully stated – is one of the deepest jealousy.

“Is she pretty?”, Elisabeth can’t help herself asking Leicester who has just delivered a message from Mary and has shown indifference to the news that she is considering a marriage proposal from France, and you can imagine her reaction when Leicester has the indelicacy of detailing Mary’s virtues in loving tones while, strangely in this production, his hands are wandering all over her. The latter point highlights the problem that Denis Krief has with staging the opera. There is really no action, the characters just stand around and sing, and with no great depth to the love-triangle rivalry, the stage director is left to just emphasise, and in some cases inappropriately overstate, those surface emotions that are brought out in the libretto.

And to a large extent, the opera works on that surface level, but it’s mostly through its expression in Donizetti’s sizzling score and the delivery of those bitter cat-fighting moments in the extraordinary challenging arias, than through anything that the staging comes up with. There may not be much to get to grips with in the plot, the acting is stiff and weak (mainly on account of the characters having nothing to do), but if you want to see a mezzo and a soprano tear strips off each other vocally, and coming close to physical violence (there are looks that could kill here), then Sonia Ganassi as Elizabeth and Fiorenza Cedolins as Mary, deliver that in the most powerful manner. Inevitably, the soprano is going to win in the singing stakes, Cedolins having plenty of extravagant arias with all the coloratura, and she delivers them with remarkable control and force, but Ganassi’s Elizabeth has the more juicy lines in the libretto and devastating put-downs. Coming between these two powerful women, the thin tenor voice of José Bros can’t help but seem a bit lost, hitting the notes well enough, but with a tone that isn’t the most pleasant to the ear.

If a stage director is wise then, he will also just keep out of the way and let the two women get on with it, and to a large extent that’s what Krief does. There is no period setting, the costumes are generic traditional rather than modern, there are practically no props whatsoever, the stage converted into a tilted forward labyrinth (reminiscent of the Berlin Holocaust memorial or, less kindly, like a Pac-Man arena when it is populated by moving characters) that does nevertheless give emphasis to the romantic intrigue through its lighting and shadows. It’s not particularly imaginative or dynamic, but it looks fine and works through its very simplicity. There’s not much drama then, no real staging to speak of, not much in the way of acting or movement – it might as well be a concert performance – but the opera works through its musical vibrancy and some terrific arias alone.

On Blu-ray, the stage setting and the lighting come across exceptionally well, and the audio tracks are just as impressive, voices ringing clear, the orchestration beautifully defined, the strings in particular being dominant, with deep rounded bass in the low-frequency range. The audience however sounds strangely muted in the surround mix. There is a little bit of ambient noise or low microphone feedback on a few moments, but nothing that affects the overall impact. There are no extra features on the disc, just some brief notes on the opera and its staging, with a similarly short synopsis.