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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Opera Review: An Exchange of Queens

Maria Stuarda premieres at the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Elisabeta (Elza van der Heever, l.) menaces Maria (Joyce DiDonato)
in the Met's new production of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England never met in real life. However, that imagined meeting came to vivid life last night in the Metropolitan Opera's first performance of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda starring Joyce DiDonato in the title role. The New Year's Eve performance also marked the house debut of promising South African soprano Elza van den Heever as Queen Elizabeth of England.

The opera's libretto (based on an 1800 play by Friedrich Schiller) takes some liberties with history, but yields wonderful results. At the heart of the story is a fictional love triangle between Maria, Elisabetta and Robert Dudley (Matthew Polenzani). That affair becomes Elisabetta's excuse to send her rebellious cousin to the execution block. It may not be history, but in the hands of a master composer it works as great drama.

Maria puts the voices of its three leads to the stern test. First among these is the pliant, sweet mezzo of Ms. DiDonato. Whether engaging in solo fioratura above the stave or plunging to the lower depths required for this role, she produced a firm, smooth tone with great vocal agility. Her arrival halfway through Act I elevated the dramatic action of the show, making it easy to understand why Maria's exile was a political sore point to her reigning cousin.


An Italian audience in 1835 would have seen "Good Queen Bess" as a bastard child (since the Pope never recognized the divorce of her father, Henry VIII) and an usurper of the throne. The famous Act I finale, where Elisabetta and Maria hurl insults at each other ("Profonato è il soglio inglese, vil bastarda, dal tuo piè!") during a disastrous hunting party brings the two divas together for an epic confrontation in Fotheringhay Forest, settled with dueling voices. Maria "loses" (she is sentenced to die) but wins this little musical war, much to the delight of the listener.

Donizetti's librettist (Giuseppe Bardari) portrayed Elisabetta as vain and overstuffed, with a mean streak. These unlovely qualities are not apparent in the opening aria, but are gradually revealed by Ms. van der Heever in a tour de force portrayal that rivals Ms. DiDonato's. Like Mozart and Handel, Donizetti was an expert at using gorgeous coloratura singing to portray negative emotions: jealousy, hatred ad homicidal rage masked as queenly governance. Ms. van den Heever brought all of these to the table, overcoming  layers of makeup, lace and glitter to create a towering portrait of a small, mean woman stuck in a difficult political and personal situation.

The final act of this opera pulls the audience inside the Tower of London for the hours and minutes leading up to Maria's execution. It is a series of dramatic arias and duets, leading to spectacular explosions of flowering tone, expertly supported by the orchestra and chorus. Ms. DiDonato rose admirably to each occasion, making Maria's farewells to her courtiers, lovers and people moving and creating a satisfying depth to the doomed monarch.

Mr. Polenzani has become the Met's "go-to" Italian tenor, a welcome development for the ears of opera goers. He molded Roberto's bel canto lines with a clear, plangent tone that could ring with power or float on soft, caressing swells of strings and wind. This was a strong performance in an opera where the tenor lead is wholly eclipsed by the two reigning ladies. The remaining supporting cast (the opera has only six characters) was satisfying, supported by Donald Palumbo's superb chorus and sensitive, idiomatic conducting from Maurizio Benini.

This is the second of Donizetti's "Queens" operas. Like last year's production of Anna Bolena, the show is directed by David McVicar. Again, the director imagines England as a dark world of greys, blacks and umbers, with the characters in period dress moving like chessmen through a bleak, shadowy landscape. This is Tudor England with elements of Lewis Carroll. Confronted with the need to project beautiful sounds in heavy, confining costumes, the performers often forget to act with each other, which undermines the dramatic impact of several scenes.

John MacFarlane contributed sets and costumes, from the outsized "disco dress" worn by Ms. van den Heever in Act II to the gigantic "show" curtain depicting a bloody, pointless death-struggle between heraldic beasts. The Scots designer's taste for the fantastic extended to the execution scene, where black-clad cast members moved around a black-matte floor and a black ascending staircase. Although it conveyed the terror and mystery of the Tower of London, the bleak designs prove that sometimes it's better to close one's eyes and listen.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.