On January 4, 2013, the Operarox Liveshow regulars and other impassioned, young opera fans from different cities all over the country and of all different ages descended upon Lincoln Center, New York to hear Joyce DiDonato-their “high priestess”, in a way- tackle the bel-canto role of Maria Stuarda in Gaetano Donizetti’s opera of the same name.
I am proud to have been one of these people.
The Met presented the premiere performance of the second opera in Donizetti’s “Three Queens” trilogy(Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux) on New Year’s Eve of 2012 as a vehicle for American mezzo Joyce DiDonato and a debut opportunity for South African soprano, Elza van den Heever.
The opera itself endured a difficult history of censorship in royal Italy, causing multiple different versions to appear at different times. Left largely in obscurity for nearly 125 years, the opera made a comeback in the “Bel-Canto revival” period of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s as a vehicle for various prime donne of the day such as Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland or Monserrat Caballe. The opera-based off the play “Mary Stuart” by Schiller- centers around the pivotal and intensely dramatic “Confrontation Scene” at the end of the first act. To learn more about Maria Stuarda, go here.
British director David McVicar-who directed Anna Bolena last year and is scheduled to direct Roberto Devereux next year- created this production with designs for sets and costumes by John Macfarlane.
We’ll start with the production designs.
The production sets the action on an EXTREMELY raked, smaller stage. My first thought was that this could be a nod to the theaters of old were the Schiller play that inspired the opera would have been performed, but this is never explained and while
minimally intrusive, only serves as something that makes us stressed that singers might fall. The curtain was a bloody and evil looking crest with a lion and a phoenix on it, which listed on the first act to reveal dramatic red rafters hanging from the ceiling. Acrobats flip on a stage on a stage on a stage and chorus people dressed in white skip around celebrating the Dauphin’s wedding proposal to Elizabeth who just walked onstage, dressed like the other people. This is kind of confusing. She’s royalty, isn’t she? Why is it so hard to distinguish her from other people of the court?
Sets fly in and out-creaking all the way- to create the forest outside Maria’s prison. The stage is covered in fake, dead trees and set against a foreboding background, but still. Characters move gracefully throughout the stage, be they choristers, Maria or even the queen. The second act sees Elizabeth’s study with similar painted walls and in Maria’s prison at Fotheringay, the scene is easily evoked with subtle but effective lights by Jennifer Tipton suggesting windows and a far wall covered in Maria’s letters to Elizabeth during her captivity. The most thrilling image of all though, was Maria’s climb to the chopping block, adorned in a simple red nightgown up a steep staircase. I know the Met overuses this word a lot, but all things considered, for the most part this production is striking. This opera, however does not have the dramatic legs to stand on like in other operas, I wish there had been a little more meat to this production which on rare occasion, came across as boring.
The costumes by John Macfarlane are visually appealing but pleasant at most. There are so many opportunities in particular for Elizabeth and we only get the famous “Gloriana” in one scene. In the second scene of act 1, Macfarlane has created a strange “half gown/ half pantsuit gone wrong” hunting outfit. This only further emphasizes the thoroughly bizarre “nine months pregnant and chafing” walk that Elizabeth does. I heard that this suggests back pain Elizabeth experienced, but there’s no reference of this anywhere. This is the only detail that really irked me about this production, but overall I give McVicar high marks. In an age where new productions at the Met haven’t been received well, this looks like a bright new path.
Vocally, this is probably an ideal Stuarda cast when Polenzani is in the house.
Any intonation problems Joyce DiDonato had on opening night are gone and even though she transposed the role down, she really brings that signature technique and clarity of voice and diction to any role she sings. She really amped up her… Female dog… factor on the “Vil Bastarda” moment and stole the show with the Preghiera at the end. One of my opera friends described her voice “like a bell” and this comparison is very correct for her in this opera. Her diction was spot on and while her vibrato veered off course once or twice, her coloratura technique was perfect and her acting intense and convincing.
As her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, Elza van den Heever will compete with Liyudmila Monastyrska and Bryan Hymel for the best debut of the Met season so far. While her voice is not a beautiful instrument, it’s unique, it’s thrilling and it’s different from some of the singers we have today who all sound the same. She was a stage animal and totally threw herself into the role. She even shaved her head for the part. She sang her part with ease, indicating no trouble with her upper register. While the low notes of this zwischenfach role escaped her sometimes, it was a remarkable performance.
In a casting change the day before, scheduled tenor Matthew Polenzani was replaced by tenor Salvatore Cordella who made his debut that night. I understand the circumstances were very difficult, but the (completely understandable) nerves in his relatively small voice made the first scene uncomfortable to watch. As the performance progressed, he opened up a little bit revealing a soaring top register that he kept partially constricted the entire performance causing a wobble and lumbering certain coloratura passages. But each time he opened his mouth, it was beyond stressful to hear, if it was even audible at all. I didn’t know if he was going to faint or vomit or a combination of the two. I think he would be served wonderfully in a house not as cavernous as the Met like a house in Europe. This debut definitely undermined the skills he certainly has, but all in all it was disappointing.
Matthew Rose as Maria’s confessor, Giorgio Talbot was powerful and resonate and Joshua Hopkins as Cecil-an advisor to Elizabeth- was pleasant but struggled with audibility issues the entire night. Maria Zifchak was a wonderful and emotional Anna(a “lady in waiting to Maria Stuarda”), further cementing her place in my heart as one of my favorite mezzo comprimarias.
Bel-canto specialist, Maurizio Benini conducted an energetic reading of Donizetti’s score, working very comprehensively with the singers. Some of his tempo choices were strange such as the opening of Maria’s cabaletta “Nella pace” but there were solid performances all around. Donald Palumbo’s chorus was in top form as was the Met orchestra.
Maria Stuarda is not an opera without faults and it’s unmistakably Donizetti. These performances are a testimony to why we dust off obscure(ish) works from great composers and each opera isn’t going to win.
But this one, certainly did.