Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Friday, April 30, 2021

The Met in the Time of Pandemic: The unfinished Season, May 2020, Maria Stuarda, Kát’a Kabanová

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COVID-19 continued to rampage through New York in May 2020. On May 1, the closure of public schools was extended to the end of the academic year; two weeks later, the Governor ordered the continuation of the state of emergency, the lock-down of all but essential services, and strict limitations on gatherings until the middle of June. By the end of the month, the virus had claimed 100,000 lives in the U.S. alone.


The Met orchestra and chorus, along with its stagehands, had gone without pay since the end of March. On May 5, the General Manager announced the furlough of forty-one members of the administrative staff, a measure the company had earlier thought it could avoid. And some full-time employees were reduced to part-time status. There were shards of good news in the midst of so much uncertainty and foreboding. On May 7, the Met announced that 15,000 new subscribers had signed on to its on-demand video service; emergency fund-raising was going well, thanks in part to 10,000 new donors. Nonetheless, the losses were staggering.


In May, too, the Met mourned the passing of two stars of a previous generation, Rosalind Elias and Gabriel Bacquier. We will have profiles of these artists and clips of their performances in most favored roles in our next post.

And May saw also the last gasp of the unfinished 2019-2020 season with the cancellation of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, scheduled to run through May 9, and Leoš Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová, scheduled to open on May 6. The two works shared this thwarted aspiration: to secure a predictable spot in the company’s repertoire.

Maria Stuarda

In its 2012 Met premiere and its 2016 revival, Maria Stuarda had shown itself to be a congenial vehicle first for Joyce DiDonato and then for Sandra Radvanovsky who took on Donizetti’s two other Tudor queens, Elisabeth in Roberto Devereux and Anne in Anna Bolena the same season. (See our post of Feb. 4, 2016, Diana Damrau was to be Maria Stuarda in 2020.


In this ensemble scene from a 1982 English-language performance at London’s English National Opera, Mary is sung by Janet Baker, Elizabeth by Rosalind Plowright, The Queen of Scots, prisoner of the Queen of England, is outraged at her cousin’s imperious contempt. In the presence of a chorus )of horrified principals and anguished courtiers, Mary hurls insults at Elizabeth—and seals her fate. (Our post of Feb. 4, 2016 includes a clip of Janet Baker in another excerpt from Maria Stuarda.)


In Act III, Donizetti’s tragic queen faces execution on the block. The Maria here is Mariella Devia in a 2008 La Scala performance. Her intermittent Met career spanned fifteen seasons. In the clip that follows, at the age of sixty, her technique astonishing, her voice warm and still fresh, Devia demonstrates her peerless command of bel canto style. (Our post of Feb. 4, 2016 includes a clip of Mariella Devia in another excerpt from Maria Stuarda.)

Kát’a Kabanová

Susanna Phillips, slated for the 2020 revival, would have been the Met’s fourth Kát’a Kabanová. With its first Met staging in 1991, the opera introduced Czech to the company’s roster of languages. The beleaguered heroine, tormented by her provincial existence and by guilt over her adulterous desire, was Gabriela Beňačková, whose success in Janáček’s works eased their way into the world’s theatres. The composer’s late masterpiece is difficult to excerpt. See below the link to a 1979 New York concert performance that, despite inferior sonics, captures Beňačková’s soaring soprano and deeply-felt attachment to the title role. 

Kát’a Kabanová concert performance 1979

We will have to await future reprises of Maria Stuarda and Kát’a Kabanová to know whether either title has succeeded in drawing a wider public to its cause.











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