A blood-drenched lion and gryphon grapple over the crown in John Macfarlane’s arresting frontcloth for the Metropolitan Opera’s first production of Maria Stuarda, the second of Donizetti’s ‘Tudor trilogy’, never intended as such, of course, but leapt upon by opera companies keen to flex their bel canto muscles. This is the second instalment of David McVicar’s cycle, following last year’s Anna Bolena, and although still on the conservative side in terms of production, this was a good deal more striking, even via the cinema. The frontcloth wrangling points to the key Act II confrontation between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, pure fiction invented by Friedrich Schiller but none the worse for that, culminating in Mary’s insult ‘Vil bastarda’ which so upset the censors at the Naples premiere before Ferdinand II (whose queen was a Stuart descendent) had it banned. Sparks didn’t quite fly at the Met, but a dramatic tension was sustained throughout the performance, the only question mark of which dangled over the casting of the two protagonists.
Where Bolena had been soaked in dark hues, courtesy of Robert Jones, Macfarlane floods the stage with bright reds in a stylized version of the Elizabethan court in Act I, while the forest outside Fotheringhay Castle, scene of the great confrontation, is set against glowering skies. Mary’s room is backed by a black wall on which extracts of her ‘casket letters’ (used to incriminate her in the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley) are scrawled in white like graffiti. Scenes flow into each other unhindered to maintain momentum. As in Bolena, the final image is with the executioner at the scaffold – a typical McVicar flourish. Any takers for how he’ll conclude Roberto Devereux…?
In a pre-performance chat with Peter Gelb before last season’s Bolena, Anna Netrebko revealed that her preparation for the role included watching the raunchy television series The Tudors. Last night, it was Joshua Hopkins (Cecil) who divulged that another (older) BBC series - Elizabeth R – had been part of his televisual research. As far as McVicar himself is concerned, I wouldn’t be surprised if he went further back to the 1939 film The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, so Bette Davis-like is the inspiration for his crotchety Elizabeth I as portrayed by South African soprano Elza van den Heever. She eschews elegance and swaggers about the court with a masculine gait, exaggerated by Macfarlane’s costumes – I fear Elizabeth’s riding habit would defy even the most experienced equestrian! The advance of ten years between Acts I and II is clearly signalled in Elizabeth’s appearance after the interval; weary, bald-headed, teeth blackened. McVicar lets us see behind the Gloriana façade and her delay in signing Mary’s death warrant allows a greater degree of sympathy to flow her way than is usual. This scene alone makes me hanker after a McVicar staging of Britten’s Gloriana at some point. He clearly has a strong feel for the period. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, especially as the fog of the final scene clears to reveal the scaffold, is striking.
As fine an impact as the production makes, any performance of Maria Stuarda rests on the central casting and here doubts crept in. Netrebko was originally slated for all three Donizetti queens, but after a better than anticipated Anna Bolena (in Vienna as well as at the Met), she has bowed out, ceding to Joyce DiDonato as Maria and Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. However, this resulted in a mezzo Maria and a soprano Elisabetta, with both singers stretched uncomfortably at different ends of their vocal means. I’ve hailed DiDonato’s operatic and concert performances regularly here, but even with much of Maria’s music transposed down she didn’t quite surmount the vocal challenges as cleanly as I’d anticipated. In particular, her pianissimo high notes lose a sense of colour, tending towards ‘whiteness’; it could be argued that this leads to a greater purity of sound, but I found her vibrato became intrusive. She was at her best in the Act II aria ‘Quando di luce rosea’. Dramatically, she was faultless, her interactions with van der Heever’s bullish Elizabeth, her lady-in-waiting and Matthew Rose’s excellent Talbot especially, finely honed. She projects sincerity in her Act II prayer and ultimately one is moved by the noble dignity with which she accepts her fate. However, it didn’t stop me wondering what her Elisabetta would have been like.
If DiDonato was stretched at the top of her range, van den Heever found it a struggle at the opposite end. She sang the role at the written pitch and it was a game effort, but her lower register sounded hollow at best, almost disappearing into the ether. At the top, her soprano is bright and incisive, while her acting fitted into the Bette Davis mould splendidly; a larger than life monarch, but one whose mask slips in private.
Matthew Polenzani has turned into a more than reliable bel cantist for the Met. After his Nemorino which opened the season, his Leicester was elegantly sung, even if he was dramatically dwarfed by his two queens. Matthew Rose’s Talbot was both sonorous and sympathetic. He has terrific stage presence, making the scene where he comforts Mary ahead of her execution the opera’s most touching. Joshua Hopkins, hampered by the most laughable of prop beards, was a decent Lord Cecil. Maurizio Benini conducted limply.
Photographs © Ken Howard