01 Feb 2013
Maria Stuarda at the Met
The Met’s opulent and well-sung Maria Stuarda cannot overcome its insipid libretto.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.
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.