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.
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.