Benini, Maurizio


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.

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

L’Opéra National de Paris, Opéra Bastille | Maurizio Benini, Robert Wilson, Micaela Carosi, Enkelejda Shkosa, Anna Wall, James Valenti, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Carlo Bosi, Vladimir Kapshuk, Scott Wilde | L’Opéra National de Paris, 4th February 2011

What is the colour of Madama Butterfly? You could see it in crude terms of the national flags of the two nations involved in the opera, the red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes in a clash with Japan’s the Rising Sun (or indeed, more likely in this particular case, with the pink of chrysanthemums). Such a superficial reading of Madama Butterfly, based on David Belasco’s play, a sentimental tearjerker, could perhaps be justified, Puccini’s score even explicitly evoking the American flag in its Star Spangled Banner refrain and attempting to incorporate Japanese music into the score. If you close your eyes however, listen to the emotional core of the music – a much more delicate and sensitive affair than you might at first think – you might visualise the tone of Madama Butterfly as pale green. Or pale green through to deep blue, with an infinite variety of shades in between, illuminated perhaps at various points with flashes of violent red.

Butterfly

Robert Wilson is the master of conveying the emotional tone of an opera in terms of colour and his reading of Madama Butterfly is convincing on this account. No matter that just about every Robert Wilson production works in shades of blue, green and grey – perhaps those are the colours of opera itself. Nonetheless, even operating within such a limited palette as just a personal signature still provides plenty of scope for the director (although I personally found it very restrictive in his production of Aida for the Royal Opera House a few years ago), and it’s particularly effective in this 1993 production revived for the Paris Opera’s 2010-11 season. In terms of staging and props, the production is unexpectedly minimal – ultra-minimal even, perhaps even more sparse than usual for a Robert Wilson production. “Tutti i fiore” there are certainly not in preparation for the return of Pinkerton at the end of Act 2, and is this a dagger I see before me at the conclusion? No, it’s a mimed one.

Aside from his work for Philip Glass, I’m not used to seeing Robert Wilson’s stage productions in anything other than a mythological or generic antiquity setting, which allows plenty of room for personal touches. Madama Butterfly however is a comparatively modern opera, or one at least in a recognisable period and specific cultural setting, but that’s unimportant as far as Robert Wilson is concerned. Everyone is still dressed in togas and tunics, albeit with an almost science-fictional Oriental touch. Overall however, it’s an approach that works well for this opera, stripping it down, the action rarely extending beyond formalised gestures and hand movements that suit if not imitate Japanese social interaction, effectively undercutting the heart-tugging sentimentality of the traditional kitsch faux-Japanese setting. It also makes use of space effectively – there’s no marriage of worlds here – they sit apart, each with their own ideals and needs, and never the twain shall meet.

Butterfly

Toning down the staging is one thing, toning down the music or the singing in Puccini would however be fatal, and consequently the Orchestra of the Opéra de Paris plough on marvellously, not regardless of the staging, but mindful of the simplicity and the subtlety contained within Puccini’s arrangements, as well as the bombast. James Valenti however didn’t find that balance in his Pinkerton. He has a pleasantly toned voice, but it was much too gentle for this role, and he failed to cut an imposing figure as the American imperialist, even ducking some of the higher notes. He certainly didn’t please some sections of the Paris audience at the performance I attended. Micaela Carosi (introduced in the recent Paris Opera production of Andrea Chénier) was announced as being unwell, but took to the stage nonetheless and performed marvellously. She was everything you could want of a Cio-Cio San (barring ethnicity) and, despite her illness, completely mastered a difficult singing role made all the more complicated by the very specific movements, poses and gestures required for this particular production.

Ultimately, Madama Butterfly is any colour you want it to be, but it fits in rather well with Robert Wilson’s uniquely personal palette and stylisations, not detracting from the power of the opera in the way that his work did for Aida, but giving the characters and their emotional lives space, enhancing and supporting the emotional tone in a manner that draws out its subtleties without over-emphasising, vulgarising or sentimentalising the opera’s crowd-pleasing qualities.