Maria Stuarda, with Joyce DiDonato and Carmen Gianattasio at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden

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.





La Donna del Lago, Santa Fe Opera 2013

This year's Santa Fe Opera production of Rossini's La Donna del Lago (based on Sir Walter Scott's 1810 novel The Lady of the Lake) was a treat.  Musically, quite a nice piece.  I don't feel like giving a very definite appraisal of the opera itself without hearing it more, but it has plenty of excellent arias along with some that were less striking, some really nice orchestral parts (the opening scene, for instance), and good choral sections, along with what feels, at times, like more pedestrian sections (hardly unheard-of in Rossini).  Unquestionably worth seeing in a good production like this one.

Joyce DiDonato is a fascinating singer and convincingly characterized the main female role of Elena.  She has a very flexible mezzo with an extended high end, perhaps somewhere between a soprano and mezzo in tone, and great agility in coloratura.  Ornamentation and fancy passagework is all there, not approximated, although very occasionally I felt like this was getting in the way of natural phrasing.  Moreover she can usually do this while remaining relaxed, which probably contributes to her effectiveness as a vocal actress.  There was a lot for her to do in this opera, besides the last-act showstopper Tanti affetti, and she did it all (including Tanti affetti) masterfully.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, as King James of Scotland (disguised as one "Uberto" during the first act), gave a solid performance but his voice, while clear and reliable, seemed a bit overmatched, in volume and projection, by Ms. DiDonato's at times; indeed, I occasionally  wondered if she was holding back a bit so as not to overpower him.  (On the other hand, she had a lot of singing to do over the course of the evening, so could have been pacing herself.)  His singing came across as slightly reserved, perhaps a little stiff, although this was perhaps not completely out of character for a king.  His voice seemed smooth, refined, his tone a bit burnished.  I will definitely be interested in checking out his work in other settings.  I thought he came into his own a bit more in the final scene, where he is king in his court, rather than disguised to investigate the situation in his realm (and court Elena).

Tenor René Barbera was superb as Rodrigo di Dhu, the leader of another clan, whom Elena's father Duglas (Douglas) intends for Elena to marry.  His voice had a lot of color and texture to it, and projected well into the house.  And he sang with plenty of power and passion.  His voice showed no stress in climactic moments, and he did a good job of musically shaping phrases and whole arias, and of portraying Rodrigo as a vigorous, passionate young leader, not used to being thwarted.  I'd keep on the lookout for opera's he's in---his participation is a reason to go.

Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges was also superb as Elena's father Duglas.  He managed to convey real fatherly affection along with dictatorial control over his daughter's life, including the attempt to impose a marriage on her for reasons in part political and military.  Both his appearance (tall, with tousled dirty-blond hair) and his singing, in a clear, flexible but not soft, somewhat commanding but not bellowing voice, contributed to the picture of a fairly rough-hewn Scottish clan-leader, whose character mixes some nobility with some crudeness and violence.

As Malcolm Groeme, Elena's own choice for a main squeeze, mezzo Marianna Pizzolato sang beautifully, and her somewhat darker mezzo worked well with DiDonato.  She too was very solid in complex passagework.  Their duet cavatina Vivere io non potro was a highlight of the evening, and one of the high points of Rossini's opera.  She perhaps did not match DiDonato in acting skill; her long Act 2, scene 2 aria came off as a bit static.  But she is an excellent singer.

Seeing Maometto II last year, and now La Donna, makes me think that Rossini had a particular interest in the theme of romantic love reaching across the divide of military conflict.  In this opera, it ultimately succeeds in bringing peace.  The quick peacemaking in the court scene at the end is perhaps a little bit unconvincing, but maybe further experience with the opera will clarify that aspect of the plot.

Last season, I began to wonder if Santa Fe plans each season to have a theme running through several operas.  Last season, it would have been the damage caused to people seeking to live lives of love, art, peaceful spirituality, by the alliance of religion with state power.  This year, I'd say it was romantic love and powerful women against patriarchy.  This was the obvious theme of Rossini's opera, and I think the director underlined it by having some of the men behave extra-badly: some pretty aggressive come-ons by King James to Elena in the first act, violent treatment of women by clansmen in some of the choral scenes.

Some of the staging was perhaps a bit static, but the production did well to keep the original setting, and the sets were excellent, emphasizing rusticity and desolation over romantic lochs.  (In fact, the lake seemed to have gone missing.)  The chorus and orchestra were both very strong.

Overall, a good opera with moments of magic, extremely well produced and cast, and with a thought-provoking theme.  Lots of excellent music, though sometimes padded out with lesser music, and with a story providing food for thought, and mostly effective drama, though probably not up with the best operas in the dramatic department.  An opera I'd definitely see again, and hope to see done this well.