01 Feb 2013
Maria Stuarda at the Met
The Met’s opulent and well-sung Maria Stuarda cannot overcome its insipid libretto.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
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.