DiDonato triumphs in the Met premiere of “Maria Stuarda”
Nearly 180 years after its La Scala premiere, Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda had its first Metropolitan Opera performance on New Year’s Eve. In truth, it might be more accurate to report that there were two performances on Tuesday of Donizetti’s tragedia lirica with a libretto by Giuseppe Bardari after Friedrich Schiller. There was one, searing and inspired, that took place whenever Joyce DiDonato held the stage as Maria, and there was another more humdrum affair that transpired whenever she was absent.
History and questions of filiation haunt Maria Stuarda. The plot turns on rival claims to the English throne by Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I, the “impure daughter of [Anne] Boleyn” and “vile bastard” whom Maria rails against in the Act I finale. The title part was created by Maria Malibran, the legendary diva whose mantle was claimed by Maria Callas and, more recently, by Cecilia Bartoli. And in Maria Stuarda’s fierce, urgent duets, especially Maria’s harrowing confession to her custodian Talbot, we hear models for the great father-daughter dialogues (Luisa-Miller, Lina-Stankar, Gilda-Rigoletto) to come in the operas of Verdi, whose early successes Donizetti so selflessly championed in Vienna (where he was Kapellmeister) and elsewhere.
While not particularly grand, David McVicar’s production, with sets and costumes by John Macfarlane and lighting by Jennifer Tipton, has the virtue of allowing Donizetti’s drama to play out largely unmolested. Shades of black, white, and red predominate; the Tudor dragon and a crowned lion (a symbol claimed at different times by both Scotland and England) snarl on a scrim and on the backdrop in Elizabeth’s chambers at Whitehall, where she signs the warrant for Mary’s death. There are a few odd details: in Act I, Mary sings of flowers and nature’s gladness in a grim, misty landscape of scorched trees that brings to mind Macbeth or even Waiting for Godot; and both Elizabeth and, in Act II, Mary seem to suffer from a dire (and distracting) case of the aigue.
On the other hand, the staging of the opera’s final scene, in Fotheringhay Castle where Mary mounts the scaffold, is simplicity itself: a starkly lit hall, all shades of black, where her supporters look on, sad and still, as the executioner’s block looms at the top of a steep staircase. In the closing moments, ladies-in-waiting remove Mary’s white veil and black gown, and the frail and blindfolded queen climbs the stairs clad in the scarlet of martyrs and lovers. (We learn of the thrice-married Mary’s various passions in her scene with Talbot.) The setting, Donizetti’s soaring music, the many-hued singing of Donald Palumbo’s magnificent chorus—they whispered the word scure, “axe,” as if it were too dreadful to utter aloud—and DiDonato’s radiant, transfigured singing combined for an unforgettable final tableau.
DiDonato, now at the peak of vocal and interpretive resplendence, grasps the key element of early nineteenth-century Italian opera: the word and not, as so many ignorant commentators have claimed, “mere” vocal fireworks. To be sure, she served up virtuosity aplenty on Tuesday evening, whether in the form of a slender, glistening, exquisitely tapered thread of sound in her final prayers or in the giddy, defiant volley of roulades that she unfurled to thunder Mary’s contempt for Elizabeth. In the 1800s, though, the line between spoken and sung theatre was weakly drawn. Actors intoned and declaimed; Malibran and other singers drove audiences into a frenzy with their vehement and razor-sharp recitation; and composers, including Verdi, Wagner, and the giants on whose shoulders they stood, Donizetti among them, prized artists who dug into their words while also delivering the vocal goods.
It is a mark of DiDonato’s greatness that, with a voice of modest size that she never abuses or inflates, she repeatedly drew thunderstruck ovations from a Met audience that so often mistakes decibels for excellence. The most memorable aspect of her performance for this writer was her unfailingly meaningful engagement with her role: her nostalgic caress for “France,” the lost, gracious kingdom that Mary recalls; the scalding, haunted tones she summoned when facing the ghosts of her past in Act II; and the acceptance and grace that infused her soaring melismas when Mary resolved to wash away Elizabeth’s remorse with her own blood. Even in our era of wondrous prowess in the music of Handel, Rossini, and others, DiDonato reigns supreme.
The other members of the Met cast rarely rose to DiDonato’s exalted level. Matthew Rose as Talbot acquitted himself best with his alert, great-hearted singing in the long, ever-shifting duet between Mary and her keeper when she learns of her impending death. Matthew Polenzani made the most of an ungrateful assignment as the spineless, inconstant Leicester, bringing urgency to his pleas on Mary’s behalf in Act II and spinning some impressively long, elegantly shaped phrases in his earlier duet with Talbot.
Making her Metropolitan Opera debut as Elizabeth, Elza van den Heever for reasons unknown lurched around the Met stage like a saddle-sore rider from Dodge City, needing only a chaw of tobacco and a spittoon to complete the unhappy illusion. Her voice has a sure, sometimes fiery upper extension that won her loud applause, but it is underpowered in its lower reaches, and the verbal mush she spewed contrasted unfavorably with the more trenchant singing of DiDonato and other cast members. Joshua Hopkins as Cecil and Maria Zifchak as the lady-in-waiting Hannah handled their smaller assignments capably.
In the bad old days before critical editions, maestros like Tullio Serafin and Gianandrea Gavazzeni butchered Donizetti’s scores but also managed to make fiery and enthralling things of what remained. The Met commendably used Anders Wiklund’s Fondazione Donizetti score of Maria Stuarda but entrusted it to Maurizio Benini, who is at best routinier and at worst, as in very long stretches of Act I, presides over a lifeless, flaccid reading of Donizetti’s imposing music. But DiDonato carries all before her, and for her sublime, commanding performance and for Maria Stuarda’s long-overdue arrival at the Met we must be very grateful indeed.
Maria Stuarda is in repertory through January 26. It will be broadcast as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series on January 19, with encore showings on February 6 (U.S.) and March 18 and 23 (Canada). Tickets and information:www.metoperafamily.org or 212-362-6000.