It is not possible to review a performance of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda
without mentioning the cancellation of the scheduled premiere in 1834 and the later fraught brief run at another theatre. The causes are dealt with in an appendix to this review for those readers for whom the story is not known. They are vital in understanding and commenting on any production of this opera today.
The present performance was filmed at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in January 2013. It was the second of the Elizabethan trilogy that Donizetti wrote in the 1830s. The Met had earlier performed, and transmitted in HD the first of that trilogy, Anna Bolena
, also produced by David MacVicar.
As an enthusiast of bel canto
opera I had, in May 2010, been very frustrated by being unable to find a cinema within a hundred miles of my home near Manchester, United Kingdom, transmitting the performances of the opera seria
, Rossini’s Armida
, written for Naples in 1817. It was the American premiere of the work, featuring Renee Fleming. I should not forget the trio of bel canto
tenors such as had been on the roster of the San Carlo theatre in Naples at the premiere and for whom Rossini wrote appropriately demanding music. Eventually, the Met performance appeared on DVD (review
). Meanwhile I had some compensation in being asked to review the UK premiere at Garsington a couple of months after the Met premiere and transmission (review
). By the following September of that year every transmitted performance from the Met, twelve a year at that time, was available at several cinemas not far from me and in an increasing number since. I have attended many such transmissions since, along with those from other venues, all at modest cost, certainly compared with a live performance in the theatre. My reason for recounting this story is simple. The performance on Saturday 19 January 2013, one of a series of this first ever production of Maria Stuarda
at the Met, was the finest opera performance I have seen, live or recorded, for many a year.
With other, later, Met transmission operas having already appeared in video format, I began to worry that there might be some reason for this Maria Stuarda
’s non-appearance on DVD. It now appears, and I can say straightaway, that the quality of performance and production that I saw that night are fully realised in this HD recording in respect of both sound and vision. Now, as then, the performance to savour is that of Joyce DiDonato in the eponymous role. The confrontation between the two Queens sparks with tension (CHs 24-25), with both singers rising to vocal and acted heights rarely seen on the operatic stage. DiDonato follows her histrionic efforts in that scene by wonderfully controlled singing and acting in the last act. There’s also a superb rendition of Maria’s Prayer
(CH.37) with both dramatic and lyric tone intertwined, her floated mezza voce
swelling to forte. This is stupendous singing allied to outstanding acting and the camera shows the emotion on and in her face. In a role that it is also sung by some sopranos, DiDonato, who has also sung the role of Elizabeth on stage, uses some subtle downward transpositions.
My eulogistic comments on Joyce DiDonato’s singing and acting should not make the reader believe that this is a one-woman show despite it being a tour de force
. As Elisabeth, Elza van den Heever, in her Met debut role, is a little thin toned at the very start, but is soon into a full, strong and varied tonal portrayal, complemented by convincing acting. A tall woman she acts superbly in the confrontation, her height adding dramatic impetus to the supplicating Maria at the start and making Elizabeth’s demeaning of Maria, as she touches the latter’s cheek with her hunting whip, thus precipitating the great outburst, quite chilling.
All of the male singers are good with Matthew Polenzani particularly elegant in his acting and with wide tonal variety in his singing. His honeyed passagio phrasing, on the breath, before opening to full elegant voice is what I like to hear in this repertoire (CH.11-12). The tall and physically imposing English bass Matthew Rose is sonorous and suitably vocally varied and well characterized, none more so as when Talbot asks Mary about the death of Darnley and the Babington affair (CHs. 33-34) and comforts her as she awaits the scaffold. As the implacable Cecil, who is intent on seeing the threat of Maria to Elizabeth’s throne eliminated, Joshua Hopkins is strong toned and skillful in his acting.
Although a little dark at times, the set, costumes and lighting all create as dramatic and realistic a background as one is likely to see, with David McVicar’s direction full of many fine nuances allowing for the excellent involved performance of the soloists. The chorus are particularly notable in their contribution whilst Maurizio Benini’s idiomatic conducting allows the whole to proceed to its dramatic conclusion in a musically theatrical manner as well as on the stage.
The associated booklet provides an excellent background essay and synopsis in English and French but without explanation of the fact that the original three acts appear here as two, the Fotheringay Act
given as scene two of act one. A bad mark for the lack of a listing in the booklet giving timing, titling and characters of each Chapter. In fairness, given the Erato bargain price, the booklet is as good as that on some Opus Arte issues and distinctly better than those on Virgin also featuring Joyce DiDonato.
APPENDIX. The early problems of Maria Stuarda and the cancelled premiere
Donizetti had found fame with his Anna Bolena
in Milan 1830 and with L’Elisir d’Amore
(1832). At the time of the composition of Maria Stuarda
in 1834 he 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 Italian opera composers. 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. During rehearsals in September, the fictional confrontation between the Queens Mary and Elisabeth is reputed to have become tempestuous and violent. This was perhaps stimulated by the words of Maria, at the end of her tether after the demeaning attitude of Elizabeth. She spits out “Figlia impure di Bolena”: ‘Impure daughter of Anna Boleyn’ who Henry had married without the blessings of the very catholic Church that had refused to permit him to divorce his first wife. Maria then continues “the English throne is profaned, despicable bastard, by your presence.” It has been suggested that these words reached the Royal Palace where Queen Christina, wife of King Ferdinand of Naples, and a descendent of Mary Stuart objected. Whether that is fact or fiction the King acted as censor and banned the new opera. Donizetti was not in a strong position to resist when required 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
The soprano Maria Malibran was determined to sing the role as intended, including the fateful words, and did so when Maria Stuarda
finally reached the stage at La Scala in December 1835. The Milanese censors banned the opera after a mere six performances. It did not reach Naples in its original intended form until 1865 when both composer and Bourbon rulers were long gone. It then disappeared until revived in 1958 in Bergamo, Donizetti’s home-town. In the 1970s the likes of Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Leyla Gencer and Beverley Sills took up the title role and ensured its future in opera houses in Italy and elsewhere. This was 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 for the La Scala production in 2008 (see review
Schiller, a historian as well as a dramatist, undertook detailed research for his plays. He was also well versed in the political and religious conflicts of the age. Consequently Maria Stuarda
is not without foundation in historical fact albeit his confrontation between the two Queens is pure invention for dramatic effect — the two corresponded but never met. Badari and Donizetti stripped away the political intrigue and pared down the number of characters to six. Although Maria Stuarda
lacks the flow of melodic invention of Lucia di Lammermoor
it does not lack for melodic beauty, making up for any loss with dramatic tension. 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. The original act two, the Fotheringay Scene and the meeting between the Queens is given as scenes 6 (Chs 14-16), 7 (CHs. 17-19) and scene 8 (CHs. 20-23) of act one.
Robert J Farr