01 Feb 2013
Maria Stuarda at the Met
The Met’s opulent and well-sung Maria Stuarda cannot overcome its insipid libretto.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
The Met’s opulent and well-sung Maria Stuarda cannot overcome its insipid libretto.
Dramatically speaking, Donizetti’s opera is little more than a conventional love triangle topped with an execution
The Metropolitan Opera invested all its considerable resources in a new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Tudor-Stuart drama, Maria Stuarda: Elizabethan costumes that must have cost the entire budget of a regional opera company; a production and sets faithful to the period; conductor Maurizio Benini, who can make this music sound more inventive than it is; and a leading mezzo, Joyce DiDonato, in the vehicle role of the doomed Mary Queen of Scots.
Everything, that is, except an opera worth mounting.
The libretto for Maria, according to the New Grove, is by Giuseppe Bardari. He wrote it at age 17, and it is the only libretto he ever wrote, fortunately. He went on to a career in the law and police work, including the position of Prefect of Police in Naples.
Bardari’s solution to filling an evening’s entertainment is two acts, each pointing to a single emotional peak. In the first scene of Act One, the foolish tenor Robert, Earl of Leicester, manipulates a young Queen Elizabeth into meeting with her rival Mary, imprisoned for her treasonous activities at Fotheringhay Castle. Leicester is aware he is loved by both women. His championing of the imprisoned Mary’s cause is sure to annoy Elizabeth, which it does.
This leads to the confrontation in the second scene of Act One between the two women, during which Mary refers to Elizabeth as the bastard child of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. While this meeting is historical fiction, it makes for some dramatic fireworks. Mary’s intemperate words seal her fate.
As confrontation scenes go, this one manages to raise the temperature on stage and inspires Donizetti beyond his usual note spinning, but it is a mere spat compared to some of the real confrontation scenes in opera: King Phillip and the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos, Ortrud and Elsa in Lohengrin; Renato and Amelia in A Masked Ball, for starters. That present-day music critics have made so much of this short royal catfight signals how barren this opera is of real dramatic and musical heat.
The second climax comes in the second scene of Act Two, when Mary receives news she is to be executed. She is comforted by her sympathetic jailer Talbot (the role for a bass), and then sings her way to the scaffold. While overlong and milked for every ounce of pity, the scene contains a lovely chorus of Mary’s supporters and provides DiDonato with the chance to sing her heart out before she loses her head.
The Met staged the run-up to the beheading dramatically. Mary shed her outer grey-black gown to reveal a blood-red simple shift. Under her wig was a head of grey hair. DiDonato mastered a Parkinson’s-like tremor in her right hand and face that made Mary even more pitiable. She turned and walked up a steep staircase to face an executioner the size of an NFL linebacker, holding a huge axe. Curtain.
And that’s it. The opera is little more than a conventional love triangle with a royal overlay and an execution. The tenor Leicester dithers between women and is a most unsympathetic wimp. Elizabeth is played as a lumbering, unlovely, troubled monarch with a great wardrobe. All the sympathy goes to Mary, which makes sense when one considers that Donizetti wrote the piece as a vehicle for a favorite singer, Giuseppina Ronzi De Begnis (according to the New Grove). She never got to sing it because censors objected to the plot.
That’s a problem with “vehicle” operas: they may show off an artist, as this one showcases DiDonato, but there is little else for the audience. Verdi might have made something of this story, as he did with another opera about a tenor in love with a queen: Don Carlos. He would have included some of the back-story of the contending historical forces between Tudors and Stuarts. He would have made more of the Anglican and Catholic split. Elizabeth would have been brought to life as a worthy foil to Mary. The confrontation would have been more complex, nuanced, and hair-raising, as is the face-off in Don Carlos between church and state.
But Verdi was a genius, and Donizetti was a craftsman, better at comic opera than serious, which is why this piece has justly moldered in the archives.
DiDonato was up to the challenge. Her face, presented in relentless HD close-ups, had the glow of a martyr. She floated and held some beautiful high notes in the final scene. Her voice was up to all the coloratura challenges.
As Leicester, Matthew Polenzani proved once again why the Met is giving him such prominent parts. He has a lovely head voice, which he used often in some quiet singing. He has some juice when necessary, although in an HD transmission one cannot judge carrying power in the opera house itself. He did not project the gravitas of an Earl loved by two queens, but that is probably the librettist’s fault.
The young South African Elza van den Heever made her house debut as Elizabeth, and it gives much promise for the future. She is a big woman, made even bigger by the enormous gowns she must wear designed by John Macfarlane, who also designed the period sets. Her voice is bright, accurate, a bit steely, with heft. The Met should find other roles for her. She may have a comic side.
Bass Matthew Rose was a burly and sympathetic Talbot, Mary’s jailer and confessor. Baritone Joshua Hopkins exhibited a clear and ringing tone as Lord Cecil, who convinces Elizabeth to sign Mary’s death warrant.
All praise to director David McVicar for presenting this piece straight, with no gimmicks. Much of the action was played out in two realistic settings: Whitehall for Elizabeth’s scenes, and the forest outside Fotheringhay, for Mary’s. That the opera doesn’t make much of an impression is not his fault.
Having now presented two of Donizetti’s royal operas (Anna Bolena being the first), the Met and its publicity machine will soon beat the drums for the third: Roberto Devereux. The Met has done its best to frame them as a trilogy worthy of serious critical consideration. Having now seen the first two, and with high hopes, I think I will pass on the third.
This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus. It is republished with the permission of the author.