Above: Mary, Queen of Scots being led to her execution. Painting by Pierre Révoil (1776-1842)
Tuesday January 15th, 2013 - Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA - my favorite of the composer's three 'Tudor Queen' operas - centers upon a fictional meeting between Mary, Queen of Scots and her cousin, Elizabeth I of England.
Mary, fleeing rebellion in Scotland in 1567, could have made for the shores of France where she had briefly been Queen (1559-1560); had she crossed the Channel on that fateful night, life might have played out very differently for her. But she chose instead to cross the border into England and seek refuge from her Tudor cousin Elizabeth. At first treated warily as a 'guest', over the next eighteen and a half years the Scots queen came under closer and closer guard and ended up virtually a prisoner.
Eventually, a plot by English Catholic supporters to free Mary was uncovered; she faced trial and was condemned to death. The sentence was carried out at Fotheringay Castle on February 8th, 1587. Filled with guilt at having executed her own cousin and an anointed queen, Elizabeth ranted that her ministers had tricked her into signing the death warrant by placing it in a sheaf of routine documents neeeding her signature and royal stamp.
Mary Stuart was looked upon by many Catholics at the time as rightful Queen of England since Elizabeth, being the daughter of Henry VIII's second wife Anne Boleyn, was viewed as a bastard with no right of succession. While Mary Stuart lived, Elizabeth felt in perpetual fear both for her crown and for her life.
Historically, Elizabeth never met Mary despite the latter's constant pleas to do so. In the opera's famous Confrontation Scene, Elizabeth torments and insults Mary, inferring that she is both a whore and a murderess. Unable to endure this flood of insinuative invective, Mary turns on her cousin, calling her a 'vile bastard'. Mary's fate is sealed.
Woven into the opera's plot is a romantic triangle: Elizabeth had once toyed with the idea of marrying off her own favorite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to Mary as a way to control the then-Queen of Scotland and to give Dudley a throne. It never came to pass, but in the opera Dudley is painted as loyal to and perhaps in love with Mary. He vows to help secure Mary's freedom, arranges the meeting with Elizabeth, and then watches it backfire. Elizabeth later assigns Dudley the task of being her official witness at Mary's beheading.
Above: Lord Cecil urges Elizabeth I to sign the death warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots.
The Met had never previously mounted this opera, though there had been talk back in the day of doing a Sutherland or a Caballe STUARDA. Both these famous sopranos enjoyed great success in the role elsewhere, and Sutherland's 1971 performance from San Francisco, preserved on the Gala label, is perhaps the most vocally thrilling recorded version of the work available.
The roles of Mary and Elizabeth have variously been sung by sopranos and mezzos over the years. The normal pattern has been to have a soprano as Maria (Sutherland/Caballe/Gencer) and a mezzo as Elisabetta (Tourangeau/Berini/Verrett). Dame Janet Baker, in an English-language production at the ENO in 1973, made the role of Mary Stuart very much her own, pitted against either Pauline Tinsley or Rosalind Plowright. New Yorkers who've been opera-going for a few decades will remember Beverly Sills as Maria at New York City Opera; her Elisabettas were Pauline Tinsley and Marisa Galvany - both sopranos - and the evenings became feasts of interpolated high notes and florid cadenzas. The production was later revived for Ashley Putnam (Maria) and Maralin Niska (Elisabetta) and they gave off plenty of sparks both vocal and dramatic.
In discussing STUARDA. some people fret over altered key signatures and what Donizetti 'intended' but how can we really guess - at this point - either his intentions or what he would find viable and exciting? The opera premiered before soprano voices began being micro-categorized; we can only guess what Malibran sounded like at the premiere. What matters nowadays in performing this opera is simply: does it work? In the Met's current choices of mezzo/Maria (Joyce DiDonato) and soprano/Elisabetta (Elza van den Heever) the answer is "yes". This does not mean however that the evening was all smooth sailing vocally. But the cumulative effect of their work made a very good case for the opera and I feel sure the performances will draw new admirers to the score.
We meet Elisabetta first, and my initial impression of Ms. van den Heever was very positive. As the evening wore on, however, it seemed like a one-colour instrument, at its best in the upper range, hollow in the middle (often covered by the orchestra in key passages) and using chest voice sparingly. Her coloratura could have a cackling quality, rather brittle, and she exited the stage during the final ensemble of the Confrontation Scene, depriving the edge-of-your-seat dramatic situation of its concluding (unwritten but much-desired) high note. Ms. van den Heever was at her best in the scene where Elisabetta signs Maria's death warrant. I'd be curious to hear her in another role to better decide exactly what I think of her.
Joyce DiDonato scored a big and well-deserved success in this opera, and she displayed a mastery of vocal technique that was awe-inspiring though - to my ears - it came at a price. Her voice 'spoke' marvelously in the House during her first reflective aria where she yearns for the sunny skies and happier times of her girlhood in France. Her control over the piano/pianissimo dynamic gradations was truly amazing and the effect of her singing ravished the ear. The ensuing cabaletta as she hears that Elisabetta's hunting party has entered the castle park, was impressively sung but its concluding high note was pallid and seemed to short-circuit a potential ovation.
In the duet with Leicester and in the ensemble where the queens finally meet, DiDonato maintained her vocal poise and developed and enhanced a sense of lyric vulnerability. Cutting loose with "Figlia impura di Bolena..." DiDonato delivered the famed "...vil bastarda..." with plenty of dramatic flair. But without Elisabetta's continued presence onstage and the threat (promise?) of a massive concluding high note, the ensemble jogged along rather politely until Maria was led away.
In the second half of the evening, Maria has two very long and demanding scenes: her final confession to Talbot in her chambers, and then the extended 'public' finale with its gorgeous prayer, its arioso act of 'forgiving' Elisabetta, and the great final cabaletta. Here it seemed to me that DiDonato's voice seemed a bit tired and that all the effort of maintaining that soft/straight-tone quality was beginning to tax her. Some of her singing was ever-so-slightly but perceptibly below pitch and it seemed she was mustering every ounce of willpower to hold out to the end. And that she did so was impressive in its own right. I would imagine the vast majority of the audience would have been unaware that anything was fazing her in the least, and that is the ultimate blessing of artistry. She amply deserved her warm reception at the end.
Overall I felt that both of the principal women in the cast were on the cautious side vocally and for the opera to truly give off sparks, restraint is best cast aside, at least in the pivotal moments. I even thought momentarily that they might have exchanged roles to advantage.
Matthew Polenzani had been ill and missed one performance as Leicester. Traces of throatiness appeared in his singing tonight but overall it was quite ravishing. It is a high-lying role demanding great control as well as expressiveness, and Polenzani was overall very pleasing to hear.
I'm used to hearing a baritone Talbot and a basso Cecil; here the categories were switched. Matthew Rose was a wonderful Talbot and Joshua Hopkins a very fine Cecil. Both in their singing and their presnece they added to the night's success.
In the pit Maurizio Benini seemed to veer between too slow and too fast. His conducting lacked fire in the Confrontation Scene and Elisabetta's "Va, preparati furente..." went at a comfortable trotting pace instead of a momentum-building, blood-pumping forward thrust. The conductor did provide admirable support for Ms. DiDonato's many introspective passages which were a memorable feature of the evening.
Unfortunate intrusions from the House (so many empty seats in the orchestra!) marred the performance three times. A cellphone went off at one point, and loud voices from the lighting bay in the auditorium ceiling spoiled one of Ms. DiDonato's most exquisite moments in her opening cavatina. Still worse, as the mezzo commenced "Figlia impura di Bolena''..." some people evidently found it amusing and began to laugh aloud.
Aside from a garish front drop curtain - a lion and dragon painted in blood and reminding me of the Met's unfortunate HANSEL & GRETEL - the production was simple, handsome and probably the most pleasing to watch of any that the Gelb years have given us. Sets and costumes suggest Tudor England and we are bledssedly freed from the current trend to show every opera with men in 20th century suits and military uniforms, and women in anonymous glamour gowns and marcelled hair or in housedresses, coats, hats and pocketbooks.
The park at Fotheringay is a barren, dreary place amplifying Maria's bleak captivity. But the men guarding her are so handsome!! Surely she would have been cheered by their beauty, however sternly they might have kept watch over her. A deft touch in the staging showed the acute curiousity of Elisabetta's hunting party to observe the mythic Scots queen when she appeared befire them - as if out of a legend - in the clearing of Fotheringay Park.
In this production, the characters age greatly between the explosive meeting of the two queens and the scene where Elisabetta signs the death warrant. Since their meeting was fictional, we do not have any historical sense for how much time elapsed between the 'encounter' and Maria's execution. But in this version, it was clearly several years between the two events.
Above: Fotheringay Castle. Only a small pile of rubble marks the spot today.
It is at the end though that the production is at its most striking: the dark high walls of the execution chamber loom over the tragic scene; marvelously lit, a broad staircase rises up at the back and as Mary turns to ascend to the block, the ominous figure of her executioner steps into the light.
In this eerie hall, the black wings of death hover over a scene which leaves the gathered crowd aghast as they intone what is truly one of the great choral passages in opera:
"O truce apparato!
Il ceppo ... la scure ...
La funebre sala ...
E il popol fremente
Vicino alla scala
Del palco fatale.
Che vista! Che orror!
La vittima attende
Lo stuolo malnato.
La vittima regia.
O instabile sorte!
Ma d'una Regina
La barbara morte
All'Anglia fia sempre
D'infamia e rossor."
"...this barbarous murder of a queen will leave England forever in infamy and shame."
The Met chorus were at their finest here with powerful and expressive singing, excellent dynamics, and a true sense of mystery and terror.
Above: A Queen's execution
Mary, Queen of Scots went to her death dressed in red: the colour of martyrdom. History played a cruel joke on Elizabeth: the English queen reigned long but was ever (as she famously said) "of barren stock". At her death, childless and alone, she named James of Scotland - the son of Mary, Queen of Scots - as her heir. From the Scots queen then did the monarchy of Britain draw its vitality over the coming centuries. As Mary prophetically said near the end of her tragic life: "In my end is my beginning."
Metropolitan Opera House
January 15, 2013
Mary Stuart (Maria Stuarda).....Joyce DiDonato
Queen Elizabeth I (Elisabetta)..Elza van den Heever
Robert (Roberto) Dudley.........Matthew Polenzani
George (Giorgio) Talbot.........Matthew Rose
William (Guglielmo) Cecil.......Joshua Hopkins
Jane (Anna) Kennedy.............Maria Zifchak