Maria Stuarda had trouble getting off the ground between 1834-35, the period it had its two premiers in Naples and Milan respectively. In pre-unified Italy, depicting royalty on-stage--especially royals who even by today's standards insult each other with shocking language--invariably attracted the censor's attention: first, in Naples, Donizetti was forced to hastily refashion the opera as Boundelmonte (not, as it is often apocryphally noted, due to the fact that the twelfth-generation descendent of Mary Stuart, the Queen of Naples, was in attendance at a dress rehearsal). This was, of course, a failure, and had it not been for the bold insistence of the prima donna Maria Malibran, the "original" version of Maria Stuarda (now incorporating at least some of Boundelmonte such as the Act I love duet between Roberto and Maria) would probably not have had its second unsuccessful premiere--again due to censorship problems--at La Scala in 1835.
Although it is decidedly not a progressive work within Donizetti's oeuvre, Maria Stuarda does contain a few gems that set it apart from its predecessors, notably Maria's Act I "O nube che lieve," the love duet between Roberto and Maria directly following this ("Era d'amour l'immagine"), and the fictional confrontation scene between the two queens. The dramatic interplay of intensity, anger, sorrow, mercy, and regret (at different times) is defined by small but significant musical gestures that create stark contrasts in characterizations, despite the more-or-less strictly followed cavatina-cabaletta formula. Of course, that is part of Donizetti's mastery of craft; nevertheless, Maria Stuarda suffers from what might be called "I masnadieri syndrome;" Verdi's Macbeth preceded the latter and was dramatically and stylistically worlds away from it. The same could perhaps be said of the operas that come before Maria Stuarda, specifically Lucrezia Borgia, Anna Bolena, and Maria Padilla.
The opera is based loosely on Tudor history after Andrea Maffei's translation of Schiller's Maria Stuart (1800), and, along with Il castello di Kenilworth, Anna Bolena, and Roberto Devereux make up Donizetti's forays into the period, the latter three often referred to flamboyantly as the composer's "Three Queens." In any case, the consecutive failures in Naples and Milan allowed the work only moderate success in and shortly after Donizetti's lifetime (and, one might also add, limited exposure in the twentieth century); but in part because of Peter Gelb's insistence on bringing bel canto back to the Metropolitan, the work will undoubtedly experience something of renaissance.
The excellent cast at the Met will certainly help sell it: led by American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as the Catholic martyr Mary (conservative and highly religious Italians of the nineteenth century certainly would have seen it this way considering the lack of an annulment between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon), the production couldn't really fail, even with a director like David McVicar. DiDonato is a masterful interpreter of the role largely because her singing is incomparable, breathtaking despite her tendency to go ever-so-slightly sharp: technically she has full control over her expansive voice, employing colorful dynamics (so many shades of silver and red!) with discriminate taste, but still has the sense to sing with a verve that brings Maria to life with vivid force. The most impressive dramatic aspect of her performance was surely the imitation of Parkinson's: any time she was on-stage in Act II her hand and head shook, indicating that years (ten, to be exact) had passed since her confrontation with Elisabetta.
Making her Met debut as the "vil bastarda" Elisabetta (no small task considering her co-stars and the historical importance of this production at the Met), was South African soprano Elza van den Heever, who has an equally dark-hued voice and veritable sense of line; her inexperience shows most notably in the lack of clarity in the role's coloratura, but this is certainly splitting hairs considering her commitment, force, and brilliant sense of legato and punctuation the other 98% of the time! Dramatically, as the other side of the love triangle (she is, naturally, also in love with Roberto despite her betrothal to the Dauphin of France), she did come across a bit stiff and often manly, though, as she said in an interview during intermission to no fault of her own (she attributes the characterization mostly to McVicar).
As the opportunistic, divided yet devoted "half-hero" Roberto, Earl of Leicester, Matthew Polenzani was, as we have come to expect, fantastic, despite a somewhat shaky start. There is no other tenor on the international opera scene that can quite match him for his lyrical expressiveness, clarity of diction, and his (real) sense of dynamic opportunism: he complemented DiDonato's and van den Heever's palettes with extraordinary delicacy. One is also quite suspicious of his seemingly effortless dramatic chemistry with both women, invaluable in a classic love-triangle.
Joshua Hopkins played a vocally solid and warmly syrupy Cecil, while Matthew Rose was an equally capable Talbot; Rose shown best in his penultimate scene with DiDonato: both their voices soared expressively and with great passion.
All the singers were helped immensely by the expertise of Maruizio Benini in the pit. Although the strings had some intonation issues at the start, Benini's sense of dynamics and control over the orchestra were meticulous; it really does take a keen intellect to bring the orchestral and vocal textures together, and few do it better than Benini. He was probably at his best in DiDonato's Act II opening aria.
The production was quite traditional, and was defined by the stark chiaroscuro primary colors of the sets: red and white in the first act, greens and browns in the second, and red and black in the final scene. Jennifer Tipton's clever lighting only enhanced the dark and foreboding feeling of the John Macfarlane's production further. Surely, however, the direction could have been more creative: the already mentioned direction of van den Heever was slightly incongruous, though acceptably novel. McVicar obviously allowed DiDonato freedom of expression and characterization, whilst his idea to imply the passing of ten years between acts was also admirable. My chief complaint would have to be the treatment of the chorus members (full of their notoriously wobbly tones) in the final scene: the chorus itself is quite powerful and surely there was too much emphasis on stasis ("Park and Bark" indeed) here to effectively match the equally poignant image of Maria in red as she walks to the executioner's block.
I have seen one other opera in cinemas (Les Troyens) since my first (Ernani last year), and am certainly warming to the experience. But my original complaint remains: the flattening of the sound to fit in the limited space of a movie theatre simply does not do opera justice, and there were several times when DiDonato and van den Heever sang, seemingly melding together because of this technical flaw.
Still, it was a great night for bel canto and, of course, for DiDonato.
Photos: Bill Cooper