01 Feb 2013
Maria Stuarda at the Met
The Met’s opulent and well-sung Maria Stuarda cannot overcome its insipid libretto.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
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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.