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Maria Stuarda - Lyric tragedy in three acts (1834)
Elisabetta, Elisabeth I of England – Laura Polverelli (mezzo); Maria
Stuarda, Mary, Queen of Scots – Maria Pia Piscitelli (soprano); Roberto,
Count of Leicester – Roberto De Basio (tenor); Giorgio Talbot - Simone
Alberghini (bass-baritone); Lord Guglielmo Cecil - Mario Cassi (baritone)
Chorus Lirico Marchigiano;
Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana/Riccardo Frizza
Stage direction, set design and costumes: Pier Luigi Pizzi
rec. live, Sferisterio Opera Festival, Macerata, Italy, 3 August 2007
Picture format: NTSC 16:9; Dual Layer Disc; Sound format: PCM Stereo;
Dolby Digital 5.1.
Menu language: English. Subtitles: English and Italian
Performed in the Edition BMG Ricordi Music Publishing
This performance took place in the open air. The venue was the curved Arena Sferisterio in Macerata, a city in the Marche area of Italy that has hosted a Festival for over thirty years. It is in one of the most unusual arenas and was originally built in the 1820s for the practice of the ball game, pallone involving ricochets off the long wall. When the potential of its massive size was recognised in the 1960s it was restored and it now seats over six thousand spectators. The arena is featured in all its glory on this DVD, except for its massive back wall which is shielded by the set (CH.1).
The great expanse of hidden wall provides a width of stage that frequently challenges producers; not so the vastly experienced Pier Luigi Pizzi. He is the latest to attempt to put the Sferisterio more firmly centre-stage among Italy's opera festivals. Maria Stuarda must have been dominating his thoughts for some time. In any event this production in summer 2007 was quickly followed by another under his direction at La Scala in January 2008 (see review). The set for the two productions has many similarities with walkways and central steps. Here at Macerata the sloping walkways disguise the width of the stage well, whilst their supports of widely spaced latticed bars represent Maria's gaol somewhat less dominantly than in the Scala production. The set remains the same throughout with no attempt to suggest Fotheringay forest in act two scene one as at La Scala.
The soprano diva, like the appropriate period costumes, was to have been common between the Scala and Macerata productions with Mariella Devia, the Italian coloratura soprano de nos jours scheduled to sing the vocally and dramatically eponymous role in both productions. The illness and death of Devia's husband caused cancellation at Macerata although she managed to go ahead at La Scala to give, as I report, a formidable portrayal. Her cancellation could have meant disaster for Macerata's plans and might have seemed as if the Festival was hitting the kind of problems that beset Donizetti when the Bourbon King of Naples unilaterally cancelled the Naples premiere in 1834. Not so. Pizzi turned to Maria Pia Piscitelli who won the Schwetzingen Rossini Competition as long ago as 1991 and has since plied her trade in America and Japan as well as her native Italy.
Maria Pia Piscitelli gives a somewhat differently sung performance to that of Mariella Devia, being altogether more dramatic and less florid whilst equally convincing within Pizzi's conception. Her acting and vocal skills are immediately evident at Maria's appearance with her companion Anna at the start of act two (CH.14). She is pure toned, poignant and vocally elegiac as Maria rejoices in the beauty of the flowers (CH.14) before expressing her agitation at the forthcoming interview with Elisabeth in a wide-ranging dramatic vocal display (CH.16). Maria agrees to become more submissive to Elisabeth in response to Leicester's pleas and the duet between them is a highlight of bel canto singing at its best with each holding the vocal line and phrasing with elegance (CHs.18-19). The meeting between the two Queens does not go as Leicester hopes; with Elisabeth chiding Maria beyond the latter's patience. Maria breaks, and in the famous confrontation the Catholic Stuart Queen responds to Elisabeth's chiding and demeaning by referring to the English Queen as Impure daughter of Anne Boleyn (CHs.21-22) with the famous phrase Profanato e il soglio inglese, vil bastards, dal tuo pie! (The English throne is profaned, despicable bastard, by your presence!). In this performance the confrontation is appropriately hair-raising in both sung and acted intensity with Piscitelli really holding her own as Maria Stuarda in the vocal and dramatic stakes without any loss of tonal beauty - a considerable achievement. She concludes a very satisfying performance in the final scenes of act three. First, as Maria confesses her sins to Talbot, referring to Darnley but refusing to talk of Babington (CHs.29-31) and then, in an appropriately correct crimson dress, she prays that Elisabeth will not be troubled by conscience or remorse (CH.35). Here Piscitelli's singing is strong, full-toned and expressive before she ascends with dignity to the executioner, axe waiting, and placing her head on the block as the lights black out and Donizetti's confection on English history concludes (CH.38).
Mezzo-soprano Laura Polverelli is a little tentative vocally at the start as Elisabeth responds to the marriage proposal from France (CH.4). Once into her stride, as when she meets Leicester and expresses her distrust of him before finally kissing him passionately, she reveals impressive depths of dramatic vocal resource and a wide variety of tonal expression and colour, ideal in a good bel-cantist (CHs.11-13). The dramatic scene between the two Queens cannot be as frisson-loaded as this one certainly is unless the mezzo singing Elisabeth can match her soprano colleague for singing and acting; Laura Polverelli certainly does that. Elsewhere she sings with smooth legato and an excellent range of vocal colour and expression and, as with her soprano colleague, diction is first rate. She is smoother vocally than Anna Caterina Antonacci at La Scala whilst her acting is at a similar level of facial and bodily involvement.
As Leicester, Roberto De Basio is distinctly better than his La Scala colleague with a bright, forward and pleasingly Italianate squilla to his tone. Add sensitive phrasing and a good range of expression and tonal colour and his interpretation is wholly convincing. Notable are his singing in his duet with Talbot (CHs.8-10), confrontation with Elisabeth (CHs.11-13) and his ardent pleas to Maria (CHs.17-19) where their concluding phrases are unified in both phrasing and expression. As at La Scala Simone Alberghini sings well as Talbot and with more acted commitment than at La Scala. Mario Cassi's strongly sung Cecil is rather bland in his acting. Riccardo Frizza conducts with verve and vitality as well as with a strong dramatic sense. The Chorus Lirico Marchigiano is outstanding as is the recorded sound. The video director is a little fussy with constant movement between close-up, mid and distant shots.
I awarded the La Scala production the imprimatur of Recording of the Month. I am going to do the same with this performance. My only niggle with it is in the edition used. The La Scala production uses the Critical Edition by Anders Kiklund that has some music additional to this one, which uses that published by BMG Ricordi. The differences arise from the cancellation of the premiere by the King of Naples. Given his situation and the music completed, Donizetti had little say in the demand to set the music to another text. The safer subject chosen was related to the strife between the Guelphs and Ghibellines in pre-Renaissance Florence. Donizetti composed some new music and titled the work Buondelmonte. Not unexpectedly it was not a resounding success. Donizetti withdrew it after its Naples performances, determined to have Maria Stuarda performed somewhere in the form he had originally planned. In the interim he composed Gemma di Vergy for Milan, Marino Faliero for Paris and Lucia di Lamermoor for Naples. Whilst Maria Stuarda does not have quite the continuous melodic flow of Lucia di Lamermoor, it has its own melodic strengths and plenty of drama to compensate.
With further new music Maria Stuarda finally reached the stage at La Scala in December 1835 where after a mere six performances it was withdrawn on the instructions of the Milanese censors. It did not reach Naples in its original form until 1865 when both composer and Bourbon rulers were gone and after which it disappeared until revived in 1958 in Bergamo, Donizetti's hometown. Various versions of the score feature in audio recordings by the likes of Joan Sutherland (Decca 425 410-2), Edita Gruberova (Philips 475 224-2), and unofficial issues involving Leyla Gencer and Beverley Sills. Opera houses in Italy and elsewhere took up the work, particularly after a significant production by Giorgio de Home Lullo for the Maggio Musicale in Florence in 1967 featuring Leyla Gencer and Shirley Verrett. The set design and costumes for that production were by Pier Luigi Pizzi, director, set designer and costume designer at this and the La Scala production in 2008. His long experience of the work and the bel canto genre are evident in both.
The full Italian libretto can be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/2.110268 . The accompanying booklet has an introductory essay and very welcome artist profiles, both in English only.
Robert J Farr
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