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Judith Howarth as Mary Stuart [Photo by Robert Workman]
07 Oct 2013

Maria Stuarda, WNO

The second installment of Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda saw

Maria Stuarda, WNO

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Judith Howarth as Mary Stuart [Photo by Robert Workman]


Rudolf Frey at the helm, directing within designer Madeleine Boyd’s overall concept, with conductor Graeme Jenkins and a strong cast including Adina Nitescu as Elisabetta, Alastair Miles as Talbot, Gary Griffiths as Cecil, Bruce Sledge as Leicester, Judith Howarth as Maria Stuarda and Quite d Rebecca Afonwy-Jones as Anna. We saw the performance on 5 October 2013 at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. Whilst all concerned clearly worked hard, the performance failed to achieve the level of dramatic intensity and focus that I had been hoping for.

Donizetti’s opera failed during his lifetime, but it’s performance history has been transformed in the 20th century with striking interpretations by singers as diverse as Janet Baker, Joan Sutherland, Ann Murray and Sarah Connolly. The role of Maria Stuarda was sung, in the first Milan performances in 1835, by Maria Maliban which has led people to cast the role as mezzo-soprano though Donizetti probably intended both Maria and Elisabetta to be sung by sopranos. WNO followed this with their casting of both roles as sopranos, with Howarth and Nitescu.

Frey is a young Austrian director who has recently staged Verdi’s Nabucco in Salzburg. It was never going to be easy for him to produce Maria Stuarda within a concept conceived to fit Alessandro Talevi’s Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux. Boyd’s black set and stylish black costumes were continued over from Anna Bolena and Boyd had created some extremely striking and stylish outfits for Nitescu as Elisabetta. New to Maria Stuarda were two huge boxes, two halves of a giant cube sitting on the revolve. One was white, with glass walls, Maria Stuarda’s prison and the other was a dark wood closet used by Elisabetta.

Quite firmly we were presented with a dichotomy, the dark Elisabetta paralleled with the light Maria. This found its way into many aspects of the staging, in act one scene two, when Maria was reveling in her freedom, not only did we hear the horns but was saw them and saw Elisabetta being dressed for the hunt as the two boxes had a transparent membrane between them. Later Frey used this to striking effect when Elisabetta was trying to decide whether to sign Maria’s death warrant, we saw Maria behind her mirroring her actions. And when the warrant was signed, Elisabetta drew a line in red across the membrane which effectively cut of Maria’s head. But too frequently, I felt that rather concentrating on dramatic atmosphere, Frey was signalling to us exactly what to think.

During the prelude we saw the courtiers pressing against Maria’s box, watching her as she gestured defiance. But the use of these boxes severely restricted the playing area, so that the court scene at the opening of act one was played on the narrow stage in front of the boxes with the courtiers arrayed in serried ranks on benches. Frey didn’t seem interested in striking effective stage pictures, but seemed content to assemble people in ranks. Ensembles saw the singers lined up at the front of the stage. And rather too often he used the device of having a single singer move whilst the rest of the stage froze. I’m afraid that by the end of act one, I was beginning to wonder whether Rudolf Frey actually liked bel canto opera, as too often his production worked against the grain of Donizetti’s drama, rather than with it. All this would not have mattered, if he had generated performances of focussed intensity from his principals, but unfortunately despite some extremely fine singing and a great deal of energy, the production did not coalesce into an effective whole.

The role of Elisabetta is firmly the seconda donna, she doesn’t really get much stage time but what she does get is terrific and the part is something of a gift for a singing actress. Nitolescu looked and acted the part, in dramatic terms she made a strong Elisabetta. But she had a tendency to swallow her words so that it was not clear what she was singing, and her tone was frankly rather squally. When singing quietly, she was capable of some fine grade singing, but when she pushed the voice the tone rather curdled. Unfortunately this crept into her whole performance, so that her Elisabettta did rather have an element of caricature about her.

Judith Howarth is a singer who has not received the attention which she deserves in the UK and I was pleased to hear her in the title role. She was dressed by Boyd in a similar style to all the other women, full skirts, leather bodice but in Howarth’s case the fabric was red tartan and the bodice brown leather, with a white blouse. The result rather gave her the look of a comedy bar-maid. And throughout the opera, it was a little unclear quite who this person was, I am not sure that Frey had a strong idea here. Instead of a noble queen suffering unjustly we got a character who seemed to be channelling Lucy Ewing (aka the poison dwarf) from Dallas. During her lovely entrance aria, which Howarth sang very finely, she and her lady in waiting lit up cigarettes and lounged against the walls of the box. Then in the next scene with Sledge’s Leicester, Howarth cavorted about like a comedy vamp.

This was frustrating because, apart from a couple of slightly unfocused top notes and an unfortunate E in alt, Howarth’s performance was highly musical and very stylish. All my doubts coalesced in the staging of the confrontation between the two queens at the end of act one. All concerned were encouraged to over act, with Nitescu spitting venom from the start, Howarth encouraged to be more virago than noble victim, and Gary Griffiths’ Cecil mincing about like poison-incarnate. The result looked over done and frankly, verged into comedy, as if Frey did not quite trust his material. But then Howarth sang the infamous Vile bastard phrase with such concentrated intensity and venom that made you realise there was the making of a strong performance underneath.

In act two, Nitescu’s opening scene with Griffiths and Sledge, did generate quite a frisson of drama and Frey’s coup of having Nitescu cut off Howarth’s head with the red line was certainly very striking. But from the second scene, the action concentrated on Howarth and we were able to appreciate the beautiful way with Donizetti’s music and the nice feeling for structure she showed as the performance built through Maria’s sequence of arias. The prayer at the opening of the final scene was profoundly lovely, but the aria in which Maria forgives Elisabetta was nearly torpedoed by having Howarth strip off her dark coat to reveal a brown leather jerkin, closely moulded to her body with a pair of hugely realistic breasts. I am still unclear of the iconography here, but Howarth performed with devastating aplomb and if you had listened with your eyes closed you would never have heard any disturbance in the vocal line.

Bruce Sledge gave ardent support as Leicester, revealing a robust tenor voice which was fully adept at Donizetti’s vocal lines. We heard Sledge in Santa Fe (in Rossini’s Maometto secondo) and he impressed then and impressed again. He sang with generous tone and a robust style, bringing great energy to the vocal line. Dramatically he was perhaps a little understated, but in the concept of the rather over-done moments in the production this was very welcome.

Gary Griffiths sang Cecil very well, but his performance seemed to be marooned in a bizarre concept of the character which involved much pouting and over-acting from Griffiths. I am not quite sure what Frey’s intentions were, be as realised here they rather disturbed the drama and distracted from what was a very fine musical performance.

Alastair Miles, having contributed an evil Enrico in Anna Bolena, was a noble and notable Talbot, even managing to get out a priest’s stole with aplomb. His big scene with Howarth in act two had its over-done moments, but over all the two artists generated a fine sense of the release which brought Maria to a new plane.

Graeme Jenkins conducted confidently and there were some nice moments. He had a tendency sometimes to let the music plod a bit, so that we had the odd rum-ti-tum moment which is always a danger in Donizetti. The orchestra did not seem to generate the same consistent intensity that we had heard the previous night.

This was a rather frustrating performance, in which the director’s konzept did not seem to quite match Donizetti’s music and which led to some rather unfocused performances. Whilst there were some fine moments, overall the performance lacked dramatic intensity. Thanks to Howarth’s extremely moving account of the title role, the final scenes had a nobility to them for which I was thankful.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Elisabetta: Adina Nitescu, Talbot: Alastair Miles, Cecil: Gary Griffiths, Leicester: Bruce Sledge, Anna: Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, Maria Stuarda: Judith Howarth. Director: Rudolf Frey, Designer: Madelein Boyd, Lighting: Matthew Haskins. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, 5 October 2013.

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