Saturday, February 2, 2013

The last word on Maria Stuarda

To my feeble American mind, Britain's line of royal succession is confusing enough without trying to figure out those wacky Tudors. Because Elizabeth I had no heirs and was the last of Henry VIII's progeny, another descendant of Henry VII was Elizabeth's heir--Mary, Queen of Scots, referred to as Mary Stuart by Mr. Friedrich Schiller in his play of the same name. (Mary Stewart of history is not Schiller's Mary Stuart.) You will recall that opinion varied on the legitimacy of some of Henry VIII's marriages, and therefore of his children, so many of Mary's supporters regarded Mary as more legitimate heir to the throne than Elizabeth. This sometimes made Elizabeth a little tense.  

And I haven't even mentioned the Roman Catholic Church vs. Church of England issue!  

Elza van den Heever and Joyce DiDonato
Photo:  Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Maria Stuarda (libretto by Giuseppe Bardari, based on Schiller's play) is seen less often than its two so-called "Tudor trilogy" sisters. While full of exciting and sublime solo and ensemble music, the score as a whole is much more declamatory than many of Donizetti's other operas of the period. Casting Maria Stuarda might make casting Lucia di Lammermoor seem like a walk in the park, with the need for two stellar singing actresses as Maria and Elisabetta. Are they soprano roles? Are they mezzo roles? And unless a company has the resources of the Metropolitan Opera, to cast as extravagantly as they did with the current production, and to mount all three of the non-trilogy (a nilogy?) either together or in succession, it's simply not as easy a sell as Anna Bolena.  

I saw the last performance of the Met's production of Maria Stuarda on Saturday, January 26, and am now writing about it in the wee, small hours of the morning in January 31. Hence the title of this post. This very well could be the last post this season from any of the opera blogging community about the show. I'm still glowing from the joys of that January 26 performance.

As with his Anna Bolena, I like most of David McVicar's production of Maria Stuarda. Visually it was quite dramatic. When the curtain rose, I thought to myself, That's a lot of red. Chinese red. Looks a bit pagoda-ish. Under different lighting the effect was not quite so harsh. I quite liked the costumes, including those of Elisabetta, which some might call excessive. Generally speaking, however, there was a lot of distracting movement, both from chorus (always excellent! Bravi tutti!) and principals. During the Maria-Leicester duet, for instance, it seemed she was deliberately walking away from him and he was chasing her down. With a vengeance. (Ah, now I get it!)

And what was with the platform, looking like a rec room ping-pong table, in the middle of the set in some of the scenes?

Mere quibbles, however, when you consider the performances, which to me is the bottom line. The star of the show, of course, was Joyce DiDonato, the reigning lyric mezzo of our time. I recently raved about Miss DiDonato's Carnegie Hall concert of mad queen arias. I raved about her as Isolier in Le Comte Ory and Sycorax in that unfortunate pastiche The Enchanted Island. Although I didn't write about it, I simply adored her in the Covent Garden production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, in which she performed in a wheelchair, having broken her ankle on stage opening night. But I had misgivings about hearing her sing a soprano role in the original key. (English mezzo Janet Baker sang the role with a few judicious transpositions, and it became a trademark role for her.) In live performance on January 26, Miss DiDonato exhibited none of the issues that had me concerned, issue one often hears when a singer is performing rep that is too high. In fact, there were no moments when Miss DiDonato was not a joy to hear and watch. That is how one feels about any Joyce DiDonato performance.

A program note suggesting Elizabeth was an awkward, plain woman while Maria was quite glamorous could partially explain why poor Elza van den Heever, singing Elisabetta in her Metropolitan Opera debut, was directed to adopt a tomboyish gait in her every movement. Other roles in her repertoire include Donna Anna, Agathe, Don Carlo's Elisabetta, Antonia, and Giorgietta in Il Tabarro. Her sound is huge and sumptuous, although at times she lacked some of the finesse required for the role. This did improve in Act II, however. She portrayed the character well, from being racked with doubts to being haughty and proud, and many points in between. As I say, I didn't much care for the tomboyish approach to her stage movement, but I get it. One saw during the curtain call that she was capable of moving quite gracefully, even in hoops and crinolines the size of a city block.  

I like bass Matthew Rose, although I know he gets criticism for being a stiff and lifeless singer. I first heard him several years ago in a Haydn Creation, and was impressed with his singing. I'm still impressed. As Talbot, his singing was of course beautiful, and he seemed quite sympathetic to Maria as her friend and advisor. Matthew Polenzani sang Leicester capably, although the night I was there he sounded a little tired. He sounds better in the HD recording.  

I wasn't in the Familiy Circle, so I was able to actually see everyone's performance, and in no place was this more enjoyable than in the famed confrontation scene. I've never enjoyed not being able to breathe more. From Maria's shouted "No!" and pregnant pause just before "Figlia impura di Bolena" all the way to "Vil bastarda!" I was riveted. The tension, the rage, the fear were all delicious! I get chills thinking about it now! (At least for now, there is a video of the entire scene excerpted from the Met's HD broadcast on YouTube. It might get pulled down, so I won't post the link.)

I call this production a success. Having enjoyed both Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda, now I eagerly await next season's Roberto Devereux!