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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848) Maria Stuarda (1834/5) [116.39]
Elisabetta – Laura Poverelli (mezzo); Maria Stuarda – Maria Pia Piscitelli (soprano); Anna Kennedy – Giovanna Lanza (mezzo); Roberto – Roberto De Biasio (tenor); Talbot – Simone Alberghini (bass-baritone); Cecil – Mario Cassi (bass)
Coro Lirico Marchigiano “V. Bellini”
FORM – Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana/Riccardo Frizza
rec. live, 3 August 2007, Sferisterio Opera Festiva, Macerata, Italy
NAXOS 8.660261-62 [60.41 + 55.55]

Experience Classicsonline

Opera Rara have yet to reach Donizetti's Maria Stuarda so that any lover of the opera has so far had to choose one of the recordings made around the divas who have interested themselves in the role. One can choose from recordings by Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Edita Gruberova and Janet Baker. If Baker sits slightly oddly in the company of three stellar coloratura sopranos, it’s because the title role in Maria Stuarda has a curious history. It was written for a soprano who sang Donna Anna and Norma (but also Rosina). The opera ran into trouble with the censors in Naples and didn't make it to the stage until Maria Malibran sang the role at La Scala. Malibran was technically a mezzo but had the type of voice to confuse us critics as she could go up to the E above the stave. She could, and did, sing a variety of mezzo-soprano and soprano roles. Also Donizetti's autograph did not surface until the 1980s so that the classic recordings are based on earlier editions of the opera.
Add to this that most recordings seem to want some sort of contrast between the voices. Though Donizetti wrote the roles of Maria and Elisabetta for sopranos, they are rarely cast that way. Sutherland is paired with Huguette Tourangeau who transposes large chunks of the role down and Gruberova by Agnes Baltsa. Baker is paired with soprano Rosalind Plowright. Only Beverley Sills is cast with another soprano, Eileen Farrell. So there is plenty of scope for a new recording which goes back to Donizetti's original intentions.
This new recording from Naxos was recorded live in 2007 at the Macerata Festival. It features an all-Italian cast, a fact which should make it rise high to the top of anyone's list. The CD booklet makes no mention of what edition the recording uses, but as far as I can tell it sounds like the standard one. More importantly the recording of the voices is such that though the set is of some interest, it is certainly not near the top of my list.
When first listening to the set my impression was of the amount of vibrato produced by the singers. Subsequent listening did nothing to dispel this. It may be that the recorded sound does reflect how the singers sounded, but the amount of vibrato is so constant and so universal that I am inclined to wonder. Still, all I can do is review the CD as presented to me.
This performance is one which was probably thrilling and dramatic when heard live, and something of this vividness does come over in the performances. Mezzo-soprano Laura Polverelli makes a wonderfully imperious Elisabetta and Maria Pia Piscitelli a touching and rather radiant Maria. But Polverelli's substantial vibrato gets in the way of her passagework and nothing comes out cleanly. Add to this that her upper register is inclined to get rather blowsy and you have a lot of negatives. Perhaps, for some people, this might be outweighed by the sheer drama of her performance and the vivid way she projects character. But for me, I like my Donizetti sung cleaner. Still Polverelli does certainly make an impression, something she needs to do as her character disappears from the stage for most of the second half of the opera.
Initially, Piscitelli makes a better impression. She has a softer-grained voice with a tighter vibrato which is less intrusive. Also, the vocal casting does mean that there is never any doubt which of the ladies is singing - something of a boon. Piscitelli's opening cavatina is lovely but when it comes to the fireworks of the cabaletta, she lets herself down and turns untidy with the top of the voice going thin and somewhat squally under pressure. This continues for the remainder of the performance, with Piscitelli contributing some lovely soft, legato singing but failing when it comes to fireworks. Luckily, Donizetti wrote the role of Maria in such a way that it is the softer moments, notably the lovely prayer at the end, which we best remember.
Roberto De Biasio's Roberto, Conte di Leicester, is portrayed robustly. De Biasio does sing softly and his Act 2 duet with Mary is lovely. But when he opens up, his tenor turns a bit laborious and not a little stentorian. He sounds as if he is working rather hard by the end. Still he is a personable and attractive sounding singer and his open-toned voice would be admirable in later Italian opera. He has a tendency to rather erupt on the scene, which one can regard as dramatically vivid or slightly tiresome.
Both of the lower voices, Mario Cassi's Cecil and Simone Alberghini's Talbot suffer from the vibrato problem. So though Alberghini gives a dramatically credible performance in his Act 3 scene with Maria, I am not sure it is a performance I would want to live with.
Things don't improve when we come to the orchestra and chorus. From the opening chorus of the piece there are problems of ensemble between chorus and the conductor Riccardo Frizza. This is understandable perhaps as it was a live performance, but again, it is not something I would want to live with.
All these negative factors are a shame as the singers do make the most of the fact that they are singing in their native language. Even without a full libretto - available from the Naxos web site - you can follow what is going on relatively clearly just by listening, which is something of a joy.
The performance is also available as a Naxos DVD and I do wonder whether that might be better, given the dramatic nature of the performance having visuals as well would probably do wonders. see review
If you are hoping to explore Donizetti's marvellous opera then do look elsewhere. You can't really go wrong with either Janet Baker (in English) or Joan Sutherland (in Italian). If you already have one or both of these, then this disc makes interesting listening but it is certainly nowhere near a library recommendation.
Robert Hugill


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