Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Maria Stuarda - Lyric tragedy in two acts (1834)
Elisabetta, Elisabeth the first of England - Sonia Ganassi (mezzo)
Maria Stuarda, Mary, Queen of Scots - Fiorenza Cedolins (soprano)
Roberto, Count of Leicester - José Bros (tenor)
Giorgio Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury – Mirco Palazzi (bass-baritone)
Lord Guglielmo Cecil, Lord High Treasurer – Marco Caria (baritone)
Anna, Maria’s companion – Pervin Shakar (soprano)
Orchestra of the Teatro La Fenice/Fabrizo Maria Carminato
Stage direction, set design, costumes and lighting by Denis Krief
rec. live, Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 30 April–3 May 2009
Filmed in High Definition and manufactured from an HD source. Picture format: NTSC 16:9. Sound format PCM Stereo. DTS-HD MA 5.0
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish and Italian
Performed in the Critical Edition by Anders Wiklund
UNITEL/C MAJOR BLU-RAY 704304 [140:00]

There are times when the life of a reviewer becomes increasingly hair-tearing and frustrating. Nowadays, it’s a matter of live recordings in video issues of opera. This generally leaves the recording company at the mercy of pot luck in respect of the producer and singers involved, These matters relate more to the artistic policy and budget limitations of the theatre whence the recording originates. It can be particularly frustrating when a performance is filmed in high definition, with a good cast of singers in a beautiful theatre, when the best use of the video technology iinvolves views of the auditorium or the environs of the theatre. In this case the environs of Venice’s lovely rebuilt and restored La Fenice theatre can hardly be bettered. The views across the Lagoon to St Mark’s Square, the magnificent Campanile, Doge’s Palace, and Cathedral itself along with the Grand Canal are stunning (CH.1). The bad news is that the views of the auditorium are in no way matched by the production, sets and costumes. These completely waste the possibilities of the technology as well as seriously limiting the dramatic impact of the opera concerned.

The House of Tudor, together with the Romantic novels of the likes of Walter Scott, became increasingly popular among composers as the basis for opera libretti from the second decade or so of the premiere ottocento, the first half of the nineteenth century in Italy. The indirect cause of this involved the city censors who had to agree the subject of an upcoming opera and also its stage presentation. Ever tired of the historical subjects of mythical ancient Greece and the nearer to home wars between the Guelphs and Ghibellines in pre-Renaissance Florence, the House of Tudor and the Queen of England had a more romantic appeal as well as the possibility of colourful productions. Donizetti wrote a trilogy of bel canto operas based around the Tudor Queen: Anna Bolena (1830), Maria Stuarda (1834) and Roberto Devereux (1837). Maria Stuarda has become the most popular work in that trilogy.

At the time of the composition of Maria Stuarda in 1834 Donizetti had embarked on the richest period of his career. With the death of Bellini the previous year he was in a pre-eminent position among the many Italian composers of the day. Of his previous forty-five or so operas at that date, nearly half had been composed for Naples. He had returned there early in 1834 with a contract to write one serious opera each year for the Royal Theatre, the San Carlo, as well as having an invitation from Rossini to write for the Théâtre Italien in Paris. Things looked up for him even more when, in June, by command of the King of Naples, he was appointed professor at the Royal College of Music in Naples.

The renowned librettist Romani failed to come up with a libretto for the contracted opera, so Donizetti turned to a young student, Giuseppe Bardari, who converted Schiller’s play with its imagined confrontation between the two Queens, one that never happened in real life. In the opera, the meeting does not go as Leicester hopes, with Elisabeth chiding Maria beyond the latter’s patience. In the famous confrontation the Catholic Stuart Queen Maria breaks and responds to Elisabeth’s chiding and demeaning by referring to the Protestant English Queen Elisabetta as Impure daughter of Anne Boleyn (CH.19) with the famous phrase Profanato e il soglio inglese, vil bastards, dal tuo pie! (The English throne is profaned, despicable bastard, by your presence!). During rehearsals this dramatic confrontation between the Queens caused a physical fight between the singers concerned! News must have reached the Royal Palace where Queen Christina, wife of King Ferdinand of Naples, and a descendant of Mary Stuart, objected. The King acted as censor and banned the new opera. Donizetti was not in a position to resist when required to set the music to another text. The subject chosen was related to the safer one of the strife between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. With some new music it was presented as Buondelmonte; it was not a success.

Donizetti withdrew Maria Stuarda after its Naples rehearsals, determined to have it staged 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. Maria Stuarda finally reached the stage at La Scala in December 1835 with the headstrong Maria Malibran determined to sing the original words of the infamous confrontation. She did so, and Maria Stuarda was yet again withdrawn after a mere six performances on the instructions of the Milanese censors. Maria Stuarda did not reach Naples in its original form until 1865 when both composer and Bourbon rulers were long gone. After this it disappeared until revived in 1958 in Bergamo, Donizetti’s hometown. In the 1970s the likes of Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Leyla Gencer and Beverley Sills took up the title role ensuring its future in opera houses in Italy and elsewhere.

Although Maria Stuarda lacks the flow of melodic invention of Lucia di Lammermoor it does not lack in melodic beauty. Whilst the manuscript of Maria Stuarda is lost several non-autograph manuscripts exist as do ten pieces from Buondelmonte and ten from Milan of Maria Stuarda. This performance of Anders Wiklund’s Critical Edition, is given in two acts. In this version the original act two, the Fotheringay Act, follows on directly from the conclusion of the act one duet between Elisabeth and Leicester (CH. 7) with the former pleading Maria’s case with the woman infatuated by him. The tempestuous meeting between the Queens is given here as No. 6, the act one finale (Chs 17-20). The original act three is given as the second act (CHs. 21-34).

I have already given some indication of my views of the production, sets and costumes as well as the musical performance. The appended picture shows the nature of the costumes, of some indeterminate period, but it’s certainly not Tudor. Maria later defies history by being dressed haute couture with a white strapless gown and stole, the latter dispensed with as she walks the steps to the scaffold, I suppose it would make her neck more accessible for the axe-man! Elisabetta lacks any touch of the regal in her costume, her stark demeanour with tightly drawn-back hair and haughty manner being considered sufficient. All the men are dressed in black, José Bros as Leicester being less formally open-necked. The Talbot of Mirco Palazzi seems to be blessed with a dog collar; although he takes Maria’s confession I am not aware that he was a man of the cloth in history or in Schiller. The set is composed wholly of rectangular blocks, mostly of seat height except some that were raised periodically so that a character could hide behind them. These blocks were laid both parallel and at right angles to the stage with the whole seeming like a maze. The semi-reflective nature of the blocks allowed for lighting effects such as green to represent the forest at Fotheringay. As to production, there was little, with what there was being questionable, such as the physical intimacy, even fondling (CH.9), between Elisabetta and Leicester in act one. Given the words of both, this seemed wholly inappropriate.

Thankfully the performance from the orchestra, chorus and soloists was on an altogether different plane. On the rostrum Fabrizo Maria Carminato had an obvious feel for the genre, supporting his singers whilst also moving the drama on and giving weight and colour, where appropriate, to the more dramatic moments. Sonia Ganassi, despite lacking any regal adornments, gives a formidable sung and acted interpretation of the sexually frustrated Elisabetta. I was not overly impressed by her Eboli in the 2008 Covent Garden Don Carlo (see review) but here she is wholly at ease vocally with warm expressive tone added to clear diction and committed acting. If Fiorenza Cedolins does not match the formidable and vastly experienced Mariella Devia in the La Scala staging by Pier Luigi Pizzi (see review), hers is still a commandingly acted and sung performance. Her voice has one or two patches where the registers are not ideally knitted, but as a total interpretation of this demanding role it is one I would go far to see.

José Bros’s rather white plangent tone is ideally suited to such bel canto roles as Leicester, but at times he inclines to push his instrument too far and an intrusive vibrato results (CH. 33). His somewhat portly demeanour does not help his acted characterisation. This is not a problem with the implacable and physically imposing Cecil of Marco Caria, his baritone having a dry hue from time to time. As the sympathetic Talbot only his apparent youth spoilt Mirco Palazzi’s interpretation. His even-toned expressive singing promises a fine future. In the comprimario role of Anna, Pervin Shakar is firmed of tone and expressive along with a sympathetic stage presence. I guess she is a Maria in waiting.

This simplistic set and non-production is shared between Venice’s La Fenice, the Teatro Verdi in Trieste and Palermo. Given the division of cost, the theatres might have gone for a producer who knew a little more and was more sympathetic to what he was representing. As it is, this would have been better semi-staged with precious money saved at a time when Italian theatres are being forced to tighten their belts as previously fairly generous state subsidies are savagely cut back. In the meantime and despite the wonderful views of Venice in high definition, stick with Pizzi’s La Scala or the Sferisterio (see review) productions.

Robert J Farr

Some good singing in this bel canto gem; pity about the pathetic set and non-production.