Happily the complex performance history of this opera was set out in full in Robert J. Farr’s earlier review so that I need not repeat it here. It was first performed on stage in England in 1966 and in the United States in 1972 but has made up for lost time by becoming one of the composer’s most performed works. This, its first production at the Met, appears to have been in every way a triumph, with superb casting and production. The present recording, despite some regrettable features in capturing it on disc, overall is a similar triumph.
Above all this is due to consistently excellent casting. All of the smaller roles are well taken but the two Queens on whom the success of any performance of the work crucially depends are simply magnificent. Elza van den Heever is a powerful Queen Elizabeth but manages to avoid sounding simply like a termagant, the usual risk in this role. Indeed in this production she seems positively jovial in the first scene, revealing only occasionally the character’s insecurity which leads her to the vicious duet of the second scene. Joyce DiDonato shows even more the many sides to the character of Mary, Queen of Scots. If you should still need a repost to anyone who doubts the subtlety of the composer’s ability to characterise in music, simply play this disc. Joyce DiDonato brings out all the changing aspects of music and character with singing which is never less than of piercing beauty and truthfulness, especially in the final scene, one of the composer’s greatest inspirations.
Fortunately not only are the musical aspects of this performance of supreme quality but the production is both intelligent and imaginative. David McVicar emphasises the way in which the characters develop during the action, and in particular he shows how they have changed during the lengthy period between the two acts. The costumes are for once in period, although the director does permit more physical interaction between the Queens and their various subjects than one might expect to have been the case in that period.
I would like to be able to end at that point with unequivocal praise for what is certainly an outstanding disc. Unfortunately the transfer of the stage production to disc has some defects. Chief amongst these are the over restless changes from camera to camera, especially in the earlier scenes, and the all too many close-ups of singers’ faces. Whilst Joyce DiDonato, for instance, sings with extraordinary beauty and subtlety, the facial movements she has to make to achieve this are not always in themselves beautiful, and they tend to detract from the listener’s enjoyment. A little more distance would help greatly and add rather than detract from the drama.
Another source of annoyance is the introductions to the acts by Deborah Voight. These were presumably thought necessary for the original transmission but could have been cut with great advantage. Even worse the opera starts with a cast list shown over extracts from the score. Silence here would have been far preferable. The original interval interviews, something that I personally find more embarrassing than enlightening, are made an “extra” and can therefore be easily omitted. My final criticism is of the presentation of the booklet, printed in very small white print on a black background and therefore all but unreadable and lacking a timed list of numbers.
None of this should stop anyone with a serious interest in the opera from acquiring the disc, even if like me they find the visual distractions increase on further viewings. Performances such as those found here are of such quality as to greatly outweigh the unsympathetic way in which they have been transferred from the stage to disc. This is surely an essential part of the collection of any admirer of the operas of Donizetti.
Previous review: Robert
(May 2014 Recording of the Month)