|Elza van den Heever
Two queens did battle on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in Donizetti's worthy Maria Stuarda, based upon the Schiller play (which took some large liberties with history). Not the knock-down drag-out fight between the two divas in the 1835 opening, but the battle of two characters of varying temperaments and character--the shrewd and brilliant Protestant Elizabeth and the emotional and sensual Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic without honor in her own country. What was most thrilling about the production was the contrast between two prime donne--soprano Elza van den Heever as Elisabetta and mezzo Joyce DiDonato as the hapless Maria. We are convinced that these two superstars, unlike the two divas of 1835, got along just fine backstage!
Donizetti's writing for the voice is thrilling and just needs the right voices to bring it to life; here we had the right voices. Ms. van den Heever has a bright penetrating sound and the agility to master the fioritura of the bel canto style, sadly missing from last season's production of Anna Bolena also at the Met. Ms. DiDonato has a mellower sound, full of pathos and vulnerability except in the scene where she verbally attacks Elisabetta with vile insults, instead of assuming a modest submissive mien which might have saved her life. Ms. DiDonato is likewise a master of the bel canto style with incredible precision in her runs and a trill to die for.
There is not much to the story. The Earl of Leister, winningly sung by Matthew Polenzani, wants Elisabetta to forgive Maria, or at least to meet with her and consider it. They meet in a forest outside the prison in which Maria has been sequestered. The meeting goes badly and Maria is condemned to death by chopping block. Maria is also supported by George Talbot, well-sung by bass Matthew Rose, and her companion Jane, equally well-sung by sturdy mezzo Maria Zifchak. Taking Elisabetta's side is her Secretary of State Lord Cecil, sung by the fine baritone Joshua Hopkins. But it is the two stars that carry the show.
David McVicar's production is inoffensive, properly accurate in time and place. No great risks are taken, which is all to the good so that we can focus on the music. Sets and costumes by John Macfarlane are acceptable in that the sets suggest the halls of the various palaces but a bit strange when the forest is set off by steps on all sides, reminding one of Chichen Itza.
The costumes in the first scene are all white against a background of bloody red, probably meant to be symbolic of the bloodshed to come but not at all suggestive of the court of that epoch. In the final scene, the characters are all in black. A bit obvious, no?
Musical values were strong all-around. Maestro Maurizio Benini evinced an unusually clear and nuanced reading of the score while supporting the singers totally. There was a memorable moment when Ms. DiDonato produced one of the finest diminuendi ever heard while Maestro Benini held the orchestra down. Unforgettable!
The Met chorus sang with its customary verve and clarity of diction. They opened the opera with a joyful chorus about Elisabetta's impending marriage and closed the opera with a mournful dirge about Maria's impending death. We watch Maria's ascent to the scaffold with the looming figure of the executioner--waiting.
(c) meche kroop