Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Maria Stuarda: La vittima regia

A tale of two queens: Van den Heever and DiDonato in Maria Stuarda
Donizetti's Maria Stuarda is unabashedly a one-issue opera. The lineaments of the drama are clear (slimmed down from Schiller's play, with a libretto by Giuseppe Badari), but Donizetti is more interested in providing emotional confrontations than developing context for the political anxieties of Cecil and Elisabetta, or the ambitions of Leicester and Talbot. Even the fraught (and entirely fabricated) romantic triangle between Maria, her ardent lover Leicester, and his ex-lover Elisabetta (!) is presented without explanation, and practically without comment. The opera has the strengths of its selective focus: its tension is derived almost entirely from the uncertain fate of its titular protagonist, prisoner and political liability for the queen of England. As in the case of Anna Bolena, the complexities and obscurities of historical drama have been transmuted to create the ingredients of good Romantic drama: the wronged Maria suffers while the factions of the English court (represented by the sympathetic Talbot and the hostile Cecil) attempt to persuade the hesitating Elisabetta to determine her rival's fate once and for all. The work is well-structured, and the music often exciting, if predictable in the techniques it uses to generate excitement. The Met has given Maria Stuarda a sleek new production and a starry cast, showcasing it in this year's New Year's Eve gala. While I found the performance engaging, I suspect the piece might have been better served by a more irreverent approach to its Romantic conventions.

Maurizio Benini led the Met orchestra competently enough, but I thought more dynamic range and subtly varied tempi would have helped bring out more drama from Donizetti's score. David McVicar's production of Maria Stuarda shares the opulent minimalism and the restrained color palette of his Anna Bolena, while becoming less anchored in specificity of location than its predecessor. This shift away from verisimilitude, I think, helps the dramatic immediacy of the production. Aa raised dais covering most of the stage suggests the inherent theatricality of Elizabethan politics; flimsy screens separating Elisabetta's bedchamber from a bed-shaped council table suggest the fragility of the boundaries between the queen's private and public selves; in one of the most intriguing gestures of the production, one wall of Maria's prison is covered entirely with manuscript images of the numerous letters she wrote from Fotheringay, defiantly signed Marie R, suggesting that (despite Donizetti's insistence on her passivity) her own highly politicized self-definition was the necessary cause of her downfall. Still, the production did little to complicate the problematic polarization of the queens, with Maria distinguished by a near-religious simplicity of garb, Elisabetta by gaudy magnificence and a gender-blending hunting costume with seriously covetable red boots. The direction of the singers was fortunately sensitive, drawing out nuance in their archetypal roles.

Both the eternally suspicious William Cecil and the more merciful Talbot were well sung by singers carefully camouflaging their youthful vigor of movement. Joshua Hopkins took the role of Elisabetta's loyal and outspoken counselor, and his incisive singing convinced that he saw the imprisoned queen as a serious political threat. Talbot, who acts informally as both father and father confessor to Maria (lots to examine there,) was sung by bass Matthew Rose with rich sonority and fluid phrasing. Leicester, being the tenor, ignores his good advice anyway. I was pleasantly surprised by the convincing depth of fervor which Matthew Polenzani brought to the role of the fickle if charismatic Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. In Donizetti's opera, the earl seems to have a fatal inability to balance sex and politics. His attempts to keep Elisabetta's sympathy for himself, and win it for Maria, are naturally unavailing, but Polenzani was convincing in tenderness, in anger, and in desperation. His coloratura may not be razor-sharp, but his musicianship is very fine, and I thought he had good chemistry with both queens. Elza van den Heever made a compelling and charismatic Elisabetta, using her physicality well to convey the queen's intelligence, her energy, and, fizzling under the surface of her commanding persona, her deep political and personal anxieties. Van den Heever's sizable dramatic soprano is a very exciting instrument, with a substantial range and a wide variety of tonal colors. The challenges of Elisabetta may not have been an ideal match for van den Heever's vocal strengths, but she made something very exciting of the part. As the doomed titular queen, Joyce DiDonato brought out the spiritual stubbornness underlying Maria's potentially too-pious optimism, and sang with often heart-turning beauty. Imperfect intonation was occasionally a distraction, but I was won over--conquered, even--by DiDonato's queen. She colored her voice expressively, and sang with impressive control, conveying a warmth to Maria's character that was anything but passive, and a fierce pride grounded in the absolute certainty of moral superiority. For love of Leicester she moderates her conduct towards Elisabetta, but there is a curling smile of pure exultation before she unleashes her coruscating insults. In the final ensemble DiDonato sang generously, bringing a thread of sound from the center of the ensemble to a crescendo of independent glory. As the innocent martyr Donizetti constructed she was, to her credit, unconvincing; as the dangerous rival Elisabetta feared, and the powerful woman Leicester loved, she was superb.

Curtain call photos:

Gala finery: tartans
Gala finery: chandeliers

Donald Palumbo and chorus
Matthew Polenzani (Leicester)
Elsa van den Heever (Elisabetta)
Joyce DiDonato (Maria Stuarda)
The diva takes a bow
Cast: Hopkins, Polenzani, Van den Heever, DiDonato, Rose, Zifchak
Cast, conductor, and production team (John MacFarlane in kilt)


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