Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Maurizio Benini
Producer: David McVicar
Mary Stuart (Maria Stuarda): Joyce diDonato
Queen Elizabeth I (Elisabetta): Elza van den Heever
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Roberto): Matthew Polenzani
George Talbot (Giorgio): Matthew Rose
William Cecil (Guglielmo): Joshua Hopkins
Jane Kennedy (Anna): Maria Zifchak
Although I was thrilled at the thought of taking a break for the Big Apple and exploring the wonderful country of Spain for a couple of weeks, I still had to make sure that this little escapade did not prevent me from attending not-to-be-missed productions such as Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at the Met. Luckily, the timing worked out very well because the last presentation of it, which I attended with a few like-minded friends, was last night.
I am not an unreserved afficionada of the bel canto style mainly because I find some of its conventions, such as the same lines repeated over and over or the applause unfailingly erupting after each aria, rather cumbersome. But I can still find myself completely in awe of the often death-defying vocal acrobatics that come with it. If the singers have also enough acting talent to properly convey emotions, all the better. And if the plot is not too silly, I am totally there.
After some light research, I had come to the conclusion that Maria Stuarda had all the right ingredients. The story was at least inspired by historical facts, even if Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart have reportedly never met, Donizetti is well-known for the irresistible arias he apparently churned out at will, and the cast featured popular American soprano Joyce DiDonato, whom I still had to hear live, in a role that would give her plenty of opportunities to display her reputedly dazzling voice. Even better, the full duration of the performance would be less than three hours, which made it totally acceptable by opera standards.
Sometimes I wonder why writers spend so much time racking their brains to come up with new narratives when history often contains plenty of ready-made and relatively adaptable material. A case in point is the endless personal and political clash between protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England and catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, which first inspired Friedrich Schiller to write a play about it. Later, the play was adapted and became, with a little help from one of Italy's most prodigious melody-makers, what has to be the best-sounding cat-fight in opera history. After overcoming censorship issues and decades in obscurity, Maria Stuarda is now part of the standard répertoire and we all should be grateful for that.
It may have taken me a long time to find the right occasion to experience Joyce DiDonato's magic live, but I have to say that I was rewarded by some of the most glorious singing I have ever heard at the Met, or anywhere else for that matter. Not only does she have a naturally rich and beautiful voice, but she also knows exactly how to temper it to express her character's wide-ranging emotions with the utmost precision and eloquence. The gentle wistfulness with which she enjoyed a fleeting moment of relative freedom in the woods suddenly turned into a studied submissiveness when meeting with Queen Elizabeth and eventually became full-blown rage when calling her rival a "vile bastard" and a "harlot". Not exactly a good move towards peace-making, even before our present days of syrupy political correctness.
But she sure made her point clear.
South African soprano Elza van den Heever was a more than appropriate match to Joyce DiDonato's all-around superb performance. This fast-rising newcomer unhesitatingly lent her unusual voice, fierce temperament and incredible poise to a character who may not have appeared very likable, but was definitely mesmerizing. That being said, while her Queen Elizabeth I could be downright imperious and cruel, she also projected ephemeral glimpses of vulnerability and warmth, effectively transforming what could have been a mere one-dimensional villain into a much more complex human being.
After all, nobody ever said it was easy to be the Queen.
Met regular Matthew Polenzani brought his trademark appealing voice and engaging presence to well-meaning but ultimately unsuccessfully Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. An impeccably polished bel canto tenor, Polenzani immediately seized every moment and proved that his "Roberto" was much more than just the object of desire of two strong-headed queens. He was most remarkable at expressing his conflicting feelings towards the two women and his growing frustration and despair at Mary's increasingly hopeless fate.
The rest of the cast were equally brilliant, with bass Matthew Rose as George Talbot, Mary's long-time custodian, baritone Joshua Hopkins as William Cecil, Elizabeth cunning Secretary of State, and mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak as Jane Kennedy, Mary's loyal lady-in-waiting. Although its part was rather limited, the Met chorus was its usual fabulous during the haunting prayer Mary called for as she was preparing to die.
The production was not particularly adventurous, but it was unquestionably smart, even tentatively imaginative at times. Furniture was scarce, with the dramatically contrasting colors and elaborate lighting creating the vast majority of the arresting visual effects. Among the most memorable tableaux were the meeting of the two queens in the woods, where dark trees starkly rose against gray skies, and Mary's death sentence being pronounced by a Queen Elizabeth in sparkling royal regalia powerfully standing out in the dark room. Nothing superfluous, nothing wasted.
The music is often the raison d'être of bel canto operas, and while Maria Stuarda can boast of a coherent and tight story, its main appeal still resides in a magnificent score overflowing with emotionally charged arias. Not only do they allow the singers to have their shining moments in the spotlight, but they also keep the action neatly moving along. There was still a fair amount of traditional blocking and belting out, but at least it did not feel overly contrived or aggravating.
The orchestra was in an olympic form and delivered a vibrantly colorful performance of the challenging but immensely rewarding score. Visiting conductor Maurizio Benini proved that he totally deserves his reputation of expert in bel canto works by knowingly striking the right balance between musicians and singers, which resulted in a heightened sense of drama coming from the pit and the stage... and a perfect night at the opera for all.