July 18th: my first time at Covent Garden, for the Royal Opera production (joint with Barcelona, the Theâtre des Champs-Elysées, and the Polish National Opera) of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda. The fashion for reviving some of the lesser-known bel canto operas seems as strong as ever these days, especially with singers like Joyce DiDonato available to star in them. This one was very much worth doing. The opera is not perfect dramatically, but neither is it devoid of drama. Of course we know how it's going to end, but the first act generates suspense over whether Elizabeth will meet with Mary, how they will interact, and especially what will happen to Roberto, Mary's lover and apparently one of Elizabeth's favorites too. (I'm no expert on the history, but the libretto was adapted from a Walter Scott novel or play and is, I think, none too accurate historically.) The final scene goes on perhaps a bit too long, Mary's final forgiveness of Elizabeth and lengthy exhortations, following her final confession to Talbot, to the assembled crowd and to Roberto to forgive her and enable peace and prosperity in the British dominions strains credulity a bit, seeming a bit corny and overpious. The music is often strong here, but not uniformly so, Mary's prayer with crowd response seemed weak in comparison with similar scenes in other works of the era, e.g. the transcendent prayer scene in Rossini's Maometto Secundo.
A long first scene features Elizabeth, then others, especially Roberto, in colloquy with her. Mary doesn't appear until well into the act, after a mini-intermission (lights up for a five-minute scene change) in the first act. Carmen Gianattasio carried this portion strongly---her coloratura technique seemed quite secure to me, her voice pure and unstrained even at high volume or high pitch. Pretty good characterization too---her Elizabeth did seem a bit petulant at times, frayed by the stress of her position, but I guess it's tough to be Queen. Sometimes she seemed slightly detached from the role, possibly because the attention to superb execution of demanding singing kept her from losing herself in the part. Ismael Jordi as Roberto also came off well vocally, although to my ears, a bit "sung", sometimes phrasing with ever-so-slightly exaggerated flourishes. But no vocal roughness, a tone with good body and clarity, good projection, and pretty good characterization and intensity although again perhaps not inhabiting the role as completely as he could have. But a singer I hope to hear again, whose presence in a cast I'd consider a definite attraction.
The production made some questionable choices, possibly in trying to keep to a budget... full Elizabethan costume for the women, especially Elizabeth, was a good choice, but it seemed weird to combine it with dark waistcoats and suits on the men, possibly of Edwardian vintage like the massive leather-upholstered couches and wood panelling that furnished the supposed Royal palace. Elizabeth was portrayed as a bit on the vulgar side, especially when she rips off Roberto's shirt and runs her hands all over him in a jealous fit. This lead to a long bout of shirtless singing by Roberto, well sung but the tableau unfortunately reminiscent of a Chippendales billboard. A bit tacky, but perhaps effective in putting over a certain take on Elizabeth and inducing queasiness at her harassment of Roberto.
While the first part of the first act was an example of extremely well-sung, if somewhat oddly staged, opera, the appearance of DiDonato as Maria at the midpoint of the first act was the operatic equivalent of engaging warp drive. Her first aria was a lament at being imprisoned, but suffused---at least in my recollection of it--- more by a mood of reverie and remembrance of lost pleasures and beauty than a mood of grief. Stunningly beautiful singing, the more so because not especially showy technically and not exploiting the hotter emotions. There may well have been technically very difficult things here, too---I don't really recall, but certainly soft high passages may have been in play---but if so they were executed so effortlessly that the focus was on the character and the music.
DiDonata was excellent in Rossini's La Donna del Lago (another bel-canto-era Walter Scott-based opera) last summer in Santa Fe, but she sounded even better here, perhaps in part due to the superb acoustics of Covent Garden, which may well be the best of any major opera house I've been in this regard. The open sides at Santa Fe may make it hard for the sound to penetrate with full vibrancy to the cheap seats I usually occupy at the back of the main floor, whereas even in the very moderately-priced Upper Amphiteatre center section (next stop is the roof, but having a straight-ahead view of the stage instead of looking sideways out of a box was a blessing) the orchestral and vocal sound was clear and detailed, with perfectly adequate volume, sweet but with no loss of clarity.
Complete technical control and vocal security enabled her to be totally absorbed in the role...the effect was that she had become the character, rather than consciously acting it---whether or not this effect was achieved in part by conscious real-time effort or whether she was "in the zone" by dint of intense past effort mastering the role being immaterial. This level of performance continued for the rest of the opera, making it for the most part extremely compelling theatrically and musically, despite the usual uneven level of musical inspiration expected from a less-performed bel canto opera, and some dramatic weakness in the second act. Occasional stretches of stereotyped and routine bel canto writing were often lent interest by the drama involved, and there were plenty of passages with much more musical interest, inextricably entwined, as is so important in opera, with the drama.
To mention just a few such highlights, beyond Mary's first scene in the prison: the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth is of course classic, both Mary's controlled, but intense, pleading for mercy and then her startlingly intense outburst of anger when she has decided that Elizabeth cannot be moved, and reacts to Elizabeth's insult. I found out later that censors required these words be cut from the original production, though soprano Maria Malibran sang them anyway in the first performance (leading, after a few more performances, to the production being shut down). One didn't need to know this history for it to be a visceral thrill and shock when Mary let loose with "Figlia impura di Bolena, parli tu di disonore? Meretrice indegna e oscena, in te cada il mio rossore. Profanato è il soglio inglese, vil bastarda, dal tuo piè!" (Impure daughter of Boleyn, you speak of dishonor? Worthless, obscene whore, I blush for you. The English throne is profaned, vile bastard, by your foot!).
The scene in which Mary confesses to Talbot (extremely well sung and characterized by Matthew Rose) was another highlight, especially the swift darkening of mood when Mary gives in to Talbot's insistence that she confront her past crimes (alluding, possibly, to collusion in the murder of her first husband). It's the darker highlights that seem to have stuck in my memory, but there were plenty of moments of more positive passion that were outstanding as well.
All the singers were at least excellent---I didn't feel like the opera was losing out from weakness in any aspect of the musical presentation. In the scenes with the counselor---probably Guglielmo Cecil---urging Elizabeth against clemency, both Elizabeth and Guglielmo really made palpable and plausible a feeling of being trapped into denying Mary mercy---these ex-monarchs, granted clemency, are all too likely to come back and menace you.
The contemporary, white-tiled hospital-like setting of the execution chamber, while continuing the theme of random anachronism, was effective in one respect---reminding us that the current practice of capital punishment is not all that different from the stump-and-ax execution block of Elizabethan times. DiDonato's stamina and superb singing carried the long, long final scene well, although not completely compensating for the length of the scene, which somewhat undermined the drama. Still, it prompted plenty of meditations on politics, religion, personality, history, and the meaning of this drama in the milieu of early 19th century Italy, in which Catholicism and tradition was presumably confronting Romanticism and republicanism.
If this show comes to your town---as it I believe it will to Barcelona, beginning in December ---it's not to be missed. Strong singing all around, a fairly dramatically effective and psychologically interesting work, with attractive and often striking music throughout, and an unbelievably charismatic and inspired dramatic and vocal performance by Joyce DiDonato---a chance to see and hear a true operatic superstar, and to understand why she's in that category, for how profoundly she deepens the dramatic, psychological, and musical impact of the work.