Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Maria Stuarda, Donizetti's Scottish Queen

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On February 20, 2016, the Metropolitan will broadcast the matinee of Maria Stuarda across the country and beyond via radio. The Met premiere of this 1835 work by Gaetano Donizetti took place in 2012, almost one hundred and eighty years after it was composed. The star of that occasion was Joyce DiDonato who scored a stunning success for herself and for the company. The previous season, 2011-2012, it was Anna Netrebko who played Donizetti’s queen in Anna Bolena (1830), and who collected equally enthusiastic reviews.
This current season has seen the revivals of both Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena, and will see the Met premiere of Donizetti’s third “Tudor” opera, Roberto Devereux (1837), to be simulcast “Live in HD” on April 16, 2016. For the first time since Beverly Sills took on the challenge of all three Donizetti queens (Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII; Mary, Queen of Scots, the daughter of James V of Scotland; and Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry and Boleyn) at the at the New York City Opera in the 1970s, all three will be played by the same artist, Sondra Radvanovsky.
Only Maria Stuarda has been sung by both sopranos and mezzo-sopranos, in the case of the Met by mezzo DiDonato and this year by soprano Radvanovsky. A comparison of Beverly Sills in the nostalgic Act I aria and its agitated cabaletta, “O nube!...nella pace del mesto riposo,” with Janet Baker singing the same aria, gives a sense of the distance between this piece sung by a high soprano and by a mezzo. Baker takes the aria and cabaletta a half-step lower, and more obviously, Sills’ top notes are significantly higher and her embellishments far more intricate. That the Sills version is in the original Italian and the Baker in English only adds to the contrast. Were it Radvanovsky, a dark-voiced spinto soprano, in the place of Sills, the opposition would be less acute.

We were in the house on February 1 for this season’s second performance of Maria Stuarda. As Maria, Radvanovsky met the formidable role with lustrous timbre, a dynamic range from silvery, floated pianissimo to rich, thunderous fortissimo, a thorough understanding of the bel canto style, and compelling acting. Sir David McVicar’s traditional staging was marred by his decision to endow Elizabeth with a pronounced limp and a masculine manner that flirted with caricature. The sumptuous costumes of John Macfarlane compensated somewhat for the drab sets.

We signal two other productions of this work. We saw the first, a transmission of a 2008 La Scala performance in high definition, on a New York movie screen. The Maria Stuarda, Mariella Devia, an acknowledged exemplar of bel canto singing, and the Elisabetta, Maria Caterina Antonacci, a riveting singing actress, are equal to the high tension Donizetti supplied in this ahistorical meeting of the two queens. Here, in the final moments of Act I, Maria, no longer able to bear the humiliation meted out by Elisabetta, hurls the unforgivable insult that her cousin is the illegitimate daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. 

The other performance we recall here is one we attended at Berlin’s Staatsoper in October 2006. If we complain above about the current Metropolitan design and direction, about its bland and entirely forgettable sets and sometimes misguided staging, we hasten to note that what made the German production memorable is better forgotten. The overture was played not by the orchestra clearly visible in the pit but by an antiquated, scratchy disc that turned on a decrepit record player. Our fear was that the whole of the score would be heard thus. But, happily, no. The orchestra finally took over and the singers sang live. The production was based on the premise that the titanic late-16th-century battle royal between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots could be best understood by a contemporary audience as a version of the sibling rivalry between the aged sisters of the 1962 movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The Bette Davis-like costume of the English queen, her smeared lipstick, her long braids, her sadism, and Mary’s Joan Crawford-like wig and outsized eyelashes, the wheelchair she leaves only for her bed or to crawl about on the floor are unmistakable signs of the production’s debt to Hollywood iconography. As you will see in this clip from the Berlin production, the Protestant Elizabeth has the last absurd gesture: she slits the Catholic Mary’s throat with a crucifix. The excellent soprano is Elena Mosuc.

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