January 12, 2013
Maria Stuarda is perhaps the most conventional opera in Donizetti's "Three Tudor Queens" trilogy. The libretto is an exaggeratedly romanticized adaptation of Schiller's play, and while the bare-bones historical outlines of Mary Stuart are followed the bulk of the opera is focused squarely on Mary the Saint, the Catholic martyr. Her cousin Elizabeth is portrayed as vengeful, jealous, wicked, and a heretic (not Catholic). The fact that Mary conspired repeatedly to kill Elizabeth is barely mentioned.
Because this is a 19th century opera there has to be a totally fictionalized love triangle between the two queens, who battle for the affections of Robert Dudley. (In real life Dudley remained Elizabeth's trusted friend until his death -- the last letter he wrote Elizabeth she kept in a box called labelled "His Last Letter" and put the box by her bedside till the day she died). There also has to be a dramatic confrontation between the two queens (in real life, the queens never met face to face).
Today the plot will make history buffs bleed and seems a little cheesy and dramatically inert. But it did give Donizetti to write some of the most beautiful music he ever wrote for the soprano voice -- from Mary's opening aria "Oh nube" to her extended confession/death scene "Quando di luce rosea"/"Anna addio" Mary's elongated vocal line soars above the orchestra, the chorus, the other characters, like an angel singing from the heavens. The role requires great breath control, absolute control of the voice, and soaring high notes would help.
The current Mary Stuart in the Met's production, Joyce DiDonato, certainly has extraordinary command of her mezzo soprano voice. There's no aspirating of the vocal line, no smudged trills, no cheated runs. She also has an unusually warm timbre and a lovable stage presence. She has had, however, to make several transpositions and they had the effect of negating the "celestial" soaring sound that Donizetti was obviously trying so hard to achieve. It's not that she doesn't have a secure top -- it's that her high notes are just touched upon gingerly, and lack brilliance, and the transpositions make Mary blend in with the chorus. Sometimes when she pushes for a high note her voice acquires this prominent vibrato. There were many moments of beauty but vocally it wasn't a good fit.
I would have liked to see DiDonato take more risks dramatically too. Mary Stuart might have led a tragic life and in Donizetti's opera she might be more Catholic martyr caricature than a flesh and blood woman, but she was also every inch the queen. The libretto does touch a little upon Mary's dark side, including the fact that she conspired to murder her husband and also conspired to murder Queen Elizabeth. But you couldn't imagine someone as nice and self-effacing as DiDonato's Mary doing anything like that. Even the heated confrontation with Elizabeth when Mary hurls out the insult "Figlia impura di Bolena! Vil bastarda" lacked any fire in the belly.
Elsa van den Heever supplied most of the night's campy fun. She looked like a Bette Davis drag queen contestant and her rather shrill soprano spat out Elizabeth's music with not a lot of grace but quite a bit of over-the-top theatrics. It was more can belto than bel canto but it was fun. She was a tall imposing woman and repeatedly hovered over other characters and invaded their personal space. So this Elizabeth besides being vain and jealous and vindictive is also rude.
Matthew Polenzani as Robert Dudley, Duke of Leicester, again supplied his combo of immaculate, stylish vocalism and utter forgettability. Matthew Rose as the kindly Talbot had a sonorous bass and with his imposing stage presence made the confession scene with Mary not just a solo turn for the leading lady but a genuine conversation about faith and guilt.
Maurizio Benini's conducting was flaccid and shapeless, and his tendency to grind the orchestra to a halt in order to let the singers elongate their phrases made the opera seem overlong.
David McVicar's production is more colorful than last year's Anna Bolena. The sets and costumes by John MacFarlane evoke the Tudor era in a general, semi-stylized way. One nice touch: there is a backdrop in the Fotheringerhay Castle set that has letters Mary wrote, signed "Marie R." Another realistic touch was to have Mary and Elizabeth both age noticeably between acts - after all, about 20 years have passed. As usual McVicar's direction is straightforward, inoffensive, but also somewhat unimaginative. I mentioned this earlier but I do think that for the opera to pack more of a punch there should be more fire in Mary's belly, more of a sense that this is not just a Catholic martyr, but someone who went to the scaffolds convinced that she was the rightful ruler of England. Elizabeth could have been less of a caricature too -- this production has her limping and primping and being nasty, and that's about it. And just to drive home the point that she's a heretic, the opening scene has her court jester dressed up like a devil doing fire tricks. But this is a professional, serviceable production that does no harm.